“I think we’ve all got a touch of black-and-white thinking in our own lives without it necessarily expressing itself as a mental health issue. But if it is a problem, the first thing you’ll notice is your relationships or the goals you set in life keep coming up against roadblocks. You can’t quite get where you want to get, you feel a bit misunderstood.” – Dr Jo Mitchell.
Whether it’s applied to our career, health or social relationships, an all-or-nothing approach – also known as “black-or-white thinking” – can have serious implications and flow-on effects in our lives.
Dr Jo Mitchell, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Mind Room in Melbourne, encourages taking steps to “see the grey” to help look after our mental health.
Explaining the all-or-nothing mindset
An all-or-nothing mindset is broadly described as a negative thought process that manifests itself as a rigid way of seeing things and a reluctance to accept there may be alternative solutions or different paths to a desired outcome.
“We call the all-or-nothing approach a cognitive distortion, because it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way the world really is,” says Jo. “Essentially it is a polarising way of thinking about things in either/or terms – black-and-white thinking. In most cases, that kind of a cognitive distortion creates more problems than it solves for people.”
All-or-nothing thinking predominantly involves absolutes and extremes. It can be applied – usually detrimentally – to any aspect of life and wellbeing, including career, health, finances, social or romantic relationships, and family.
“A classic piece of all-or-nothing thinking occurs in relation to romantic relationships: ‘If I’m not in a relationship, I’m not lovable or valuable as a person’, which I think is so dangerous because you are not defined by who you are with or the relationship you’re in,” says Jo.
How black-and-white thinking holds us back
Left unchecked, an all-or-nothing approach or black-and-white thinking can have a damaging impact on a person’s mental health and their relationships.
“It's strongly associated with depression, anxiety, personality disorders and a range of other mental health issues – that’s at the more extreme end,” explains Jo.
“I think we’ve all got a touch of black-and-white thinking in our own lives without it necessarily expressing itself as a mental health issue. But if it is a problem, the first thing you’ll notice is your relationships or the goals you set in life keep coming up against roadblocks. You can’t quite get where you want to get, you feel a bit misunderstood.”
One of the most common traits of black-and-white thinkers is believing if something is not a complete success, it’s an unequivocal failure; if it’s not perfect, it’s worthless.
“When you see this ‘or’ trait – success or failure – that then impacts people’s sense of worth and achievement in life,” says Jo.
“We see these downward spirals of behaviour and definitely this kind of all-or-nothing thinking is associated with personality disorders, which can enter into their relationships pretty strongly with other people. They either idolise people or think that everything they do is wonderful, or they demonise people and think they are terrible and cut them out of their life.
“The big risk is it contributes to a mental health disorder, but the smaller risk is it means you struggle to live the life you want to be living. You could struggle in your relationships – and one of the best predictors of our own wellbeing is our social connectedness and relationships with others.”
Seeing the grey
The ancient philosophers knew a bit about achieving balance in life. “Everything is about flexibility and that ‘middle way’,” says Jo. “Aristotle talked about the middle-way idea, that somewhere between recklessness and really conservative behaviour, or cowardice, there is a middle way and that looks like courage.
“Recognising that life is full of grey – it’s not just black and white – and being able to see the grey so that you can adapt is the key to healthy living.”
Jo believes a moderated, flexible, middle-way approach can be applied positively to any area of life where an all-or-nothing mindset may have become embedded.
“In your career, it could be about having the flexibility to adapt to your own experience or expectations. For example, someone committed to becoming a lawyer may see the only pathway as a progression up the chain of being a junior lawyer through to partner, yet it doesn’t always suit their style, values and ways of working, so it erodes their mental health and wellbeing.
Being brave enough to be flexible and adaptive, so you can say ‘yes, I’ve invested a lot into pursuing this career choice but maybe it’s okay to find another way, to navigate in a different direction,’ is important.”
Inner reflection can be a helpful initial step towards identifying, then modifying, black-and-white thinking. Notice the stories that you hold onto really tightly – maybe you see success in life as being married, having children or becoming partner at a law firm. A healthy approach is to recognise that although you believed that story at one point, your experience has taught you about the grey in life and it’s okay to adapt.
“Conversations with friends are also really useful,” say Jo. “Not immediately shutting down other’s opinions, listening to what people have to say, and not polarising. Notice your language: for example, if you’re using ‘or’ – this or that – it really limits you. See if you can use ‘and’ rather than ‘or’. Be curious about other perspectives and open to them. You might begin to see the grey and ask yourself what really matters most. Will holding onto a particular cognitive distortion take you closer to the things that really matter to you or further away?”
A case study in coming out the other side
John* is one example of the many different types of people Jo works with to address an all-or-nothing mindset. John was a very burnt out, anxious, late-career male working in the financial sector when he visited The Mind Room. He held very rigid beliefs around what success looked like, what work and a “good” work ethic looked like, and what love and relationships looked like.
“John – and people like him – are really in crisis when they turn up. A lot of the work we do in this situation is around questioning: where have these attitudes come from? Do they still serve you well? They helped you get started – they helped you find your life partner and start a family, they helped you to be successful in your career – but they don’t seem to be sustaining you in your career anymore.”
In this case, Jo suggested John take a look at the stories and principles that shaped his life and adapt them. “He is definitely a much happier, accepting, at-peace human these days, which is always delightful to see,” says Jo.
So how does Jo know she and her team have been successful with a client? She gets “sacked”.
“When I get ‘sacked’ and they say, ‘You know what, I’m ready to stop coming here – I may check in from time to time just to have a booster, but I’ve got the skills to adapt to whatever life throws at me,’ for me and all of our team, that’s an indicator of success for us.”
What to do if you need more help
Firstly, Jo encourages self-compassion. “Be kind to yourself,” she says. “In Western culture, we’re pretty harsh self-critics. We don’t usually have to wait for someone to criticise us – we’ve got an internal voice telling us we’re a success or a failure or lovable or unlovable.
“Softening your own attitude is key and you can do that by recognising that you need to be a little kinder to yourself. Speak to yourself as you would someone that you really love.”
But professional help and specialised resources are readily available if you want to delve deeper or get more guidance on your path away from an all-or-nothing mindset.
“It always helps to talk to a psychologist from a clinical perspective or a coaching angle about how to get the most out of yourself, but self-exploration is also great,” says Jo.
Learning to identify that you have an “all-or-nothing” mindset is the first step. And while seeing the “grey” in your life experiences takes self-exploration and, potentially, professional help, it’s important for our wellbeing that we meet our expectations in the middle.
*Names have been changed.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.
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