All or Nothing Thinking

by Michelle Morand

A number of unrelated events in my life this week prompted me to get thinking on the theme of all or nothing thinking.  It also got me thinking on what would be the simplest way to support my clients to shift out of their old, deeply ingrained, all or nothing thought habits and into a more open, expansive and peaceful state of being and thinking.

So, here’s what I came up with:

In a nutshell, if you’re not feeling compassion for yourself and the others that you’re interacting with in that moment (whether in your mind or in reality), you’re in all or nothing thinking. It’s that simple.

You may want to read that last statement a few times to make sure it sinks in.  Then read on.

You can test this theory for yourself over the next few days any time you notice that you’re feeling anything other than peaceful.

Whenever you notice you’re feeling anxious or unsettled; judgemental of yourself or others; blaming; resentful; impatient; etc., or using your food coping strategy (which is a clear indicator that you’re overwhelmed) simply stop and ask yourself:

“What am I telling myself about this situation or person that is creating this distress?”

Then stop and think, really think, about what you just told yourself.  Is it true?  Are you certain?

You will always identify that you have just been telling yourself an all or nothing story.

It could be that you’re telling yourself that something has to be done a certain way or by a certain time.  It could be that you’re telling yourself that someone should be doing something in a different way or conversely that they should not be doing something that they are doing.  And this story that you’re telling yourself could be about the past, the present or the future.  You could be engaged in telling yourself that something about the past should be different or that something about the future should not be as you imagine it will.  Either way, you’re in all or nothing thinking.

That may be hard to swallow. At first glance these stories may not seem like all or nothing thinking, they seem like absolute truths. Of course they do.  That’s the problem. You believe they are true and so you don’t even question whether the story you’re telling yourself might actually be the old all or nothing thinking.

The good news is that if you are at all open to the possibility that I might be right you can prove it to yourself very quickly.

First, consider for a moment what it means to be compassionate.  It means you are open; accepting; loving; understanding; strong; clear; direct; and peaceful.  In order to really live compassion you must have a solid and strong core of love, trust and respect for yourself.  In other words you have to have great self-esteem. You have to be solid enough in yourself that you don’t need things outside yourself to be a certain way in order for you to be grounded and happy.  Then you can be truly compassionate.

Conversely, if you’re in the all or nothing thinking pattern it implies that you are conditionally loving; rigid; fearful; and anxious.  It also means that in some areas you’re still seeking to meet your needs for security and for acceptance through people or situations outside of yourself. This is inherently dangerous and doomed to fail. You are dependent on the moods and behaviours of others, many of whom will be also looking for their security and approval through others.

If your compassion for someone or some situation falls apart as soon as they don’t comply, or things don’t happen the way you expect or want, you can bet you got sucked in to all or nothing thinking and telling yourself a story that things should be a certain way. That’s not compassion that’s conditional acceptance.  It will only lead to more anxiety and more use of food to cope (or whatever your primary coping strategy is).

If you really want to expose and shift this harmful pattern of thinking, and live more peacefully, commit to writing down your thoughts when you feel anxious or distressed. Try it at least once a day for the next week.  Seeing these thoughts on paper makes it so obvious that you’re in all or nothing and what you need to do to shift into a more peaceful, compassionate way of thinking.

And if you’re resistant to writing these thoughts out check to see if there is any all or nothing thinking in your resistance: EG. “I know that this is true, it’s not all or nothing, so I’m not going to write this one down.”  Or “I don’t want anyone to read my writing to I can’t write it down.” Or “I don’t have time.”

These are all all or nothing statements.

If you need a prompt once you’ve got your current thought down and are having a hard time seeing the all or nothing in it try this:

“What am I telling myself is absolutely going to happen?”  or “What am I telling myself should be a certain way right now?”

Then ask yourself: “What are some other possibilities?”  “Could I allow for the possibility that one of those scenarios is equally as likely as the first one?”

Inevitably you’ll be able to come up with a few other potential explanations or outcomes that feel more relaxed and open (compassionate).  Notice whether you reject those in favour of the old all or nothing story.  Notice if you would rather be anxious and distressed in your old story than open and peaceful in a new and unfamiliar one.

So, if this resonates with you and you want to do a piece of work on your old thought patterns, paste this statment on your fridge:

If I’m not peaceful I’m in all or nothing thinking.

And then prove it to yourself.

Posted in: Relationship with Others, Relationship with Self, Tips for Natural Eating

Leave a Comment (2) ↓


  1. Johnny March 16, 2007

    I hadn’t realized that the comments made where regarding a food problem. I have been in AA for wute a few years, I’m 72 and I had just sent this messge to a few friends also in the program-

    ” I can receive so much from AA and probably the best people I have had in my life are in AA.

    Yet, I can go to a meeting and let someone’s sharing piss me off. And the person is emotionally ill and is struggling with life. She is a young tough guy who has emotional moments from time to time.

    So, why should I not be able to accept her comments as part of her learning process. Beats me.

    She went on about how she hasn’t had to go out in the two years of sobriety she has put together. And one thing she doesn’t do is go out for a smoke during the meeting. “Maybe some of the people who go out for a smoke instead of sitting through the whole meeting wouldn’t go out! ” kind of thing. And then she gets applause and comments abut her sharing.

    Must be me.

    I do that often don’t I? Get all fretty about someone telling others (me) what to do?”

    Somehow, looking for some kind of answer, I came across your “all or nothing thinking”. There is so much to learn!

    I did fight your comments,at first and then began to try to open up about what you are writing.

    I haven’t received any answers back from my friends, but I have copied your article and appreciate your comments.

    I remember, some years ago, a person from overeaters anonymous giving a friend an AA cake and joking that at their cakes they went out for a few drinks while at our cakes we have cake.


  2. Talia July 14, 2008


    You are an amazing woman!

    This whole concept had escaped me until I walked into your office. I was living in an All or Nothing world and not even realizing it..

    Im sure thats why my Drill Sargent was so happy, and i was not.

    I feel this is a constant struggle in my life and getting past all the All or Nothing thinking is a challenge. But im up for it!

    As i pursue my spirituality, listen to your words of gold and really work on myself I can finally see a glimpse of what the light might feel like.

    Thanks Michelle, your so smart and wonderful.



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