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All or Nothing Thinking

by Beverly Ward

June 5, 2022

From Science: In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) we talk about various types of "cognitive distortions", which are simply unhelpful thinking styles that distort our interpretations of people and events and contribute to faulty beliefs. One common cognitive distortion is "All or Nothing Thinking", also called "Black and White Thinking". When our thinking becomes all-or-nothing, we see the extremes with no middle ground, for example we view someone or something as being all good with no bad, all right with no wrong, all nice with no meanness, all trouble with no helpfulness, all foolish with no wisdom, and so on. All-or-nothing thinking becomes problematic when it is a habit, it then inhibits a balanced, flexible, realistically positive thinking style. Left unaddressed, it can lead to problems with anxiety and depression.

Reshaping cognitive distortions, including all-or-nothing thinking, is accomplished by using the tools of CBT with consistency. Unhelpful thought patterns are shaped over time and can be reshaped over time, to become helpful. When we change our thought habits, we are literally rewiring our brains. Think of it like this: if you continually walk back and forth in a yard in the same pattern, you will wear a path in the grass. The more you walk that same pattern, the more established the path becomes. If you change your habit and start walking in a different pattern, a new path will eventually form and the old one will fade away until it is no longer there. When we change our thinking, the neurological pathways in our brains are similarly modified. Established ways of thinking have created established neurological pathways in our brains. Our thought patterns are hard-wired in our brains and they can be rewired. Pathways that get a lot of use form stronger connections. New pathways have weak connections at first. When we change our thought habits, new pathways form and, with consistency, they become strong. When we stop using a neuronal pathway, it diminishes.

To challenge an all-or-nothing thought, look for evidence that supports the thought and evidence that refutes it. Ask yourself is this thought 100% true and is it always true. A great exercise for this is the CBT technique "putting thoughts on trial". There is an educational video in the lagniappe section that demonstrates how to put your thoughts on trial (if the video looks familiar, it is, I have shared it in other blogs).

From Scripture: The bible does not use terms like cognitive distortions or all-or-nothing thinking, but the concept of correcting faulty thinking is prolific throughout scripture. A verse that I think speaks to the idea of all-or-nothing thinking is Proverbs 22:17, "Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise and apply your mind to my knowledge." When we challenge our unrealistic thoughts, we are choosing to listen to words of wisdom (even when they are our own words) and we are applying our minds to obtaining knowledge. Throughout scripture we are told to set our path according to God’s Word. To saturate our minds in scripture and let it be our guide, the lamp to our feet and the light to our path. When we challenge an all-or-nothing thought (or any cognitive distortion) with evidence from God’s Word, we have a very powerful tool. When you put thoughts on trial, as you are gathering evidence for or against your thought, consider including evidence from scripture, it is our plumb line in building our best life.

Action Plan: Watch the video in the Lagniappe section on neural plasticity (this is the scientific term that refers to our brains ability to adapt and change in the same way paths through grass change due to presence or absence of consistent traffic). This video teaches us, with valid evidence, how the mind can change the brain, which helps increase our motivation to work at changing unhelpful thoughts patterns with valid techniques, such as putting thoughts on trial.

Also practice putting thoughts on trial until it becomes very familiar, and you can do it with ease and without the aid of the video. Automaticity in using a CBT tool increases consistency in using it and success in changing our problematic all-or-nothing thinking.


Video on how the mind can change the brain (neural plasticity)

"Putting Thoughts on Trial" video (Putting Thoughts on Trial is the same technique as "The Court Case").


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