Have you noticed what’s happening around our country? Psychologists call it all-or-nothing thinking. It’s when a person assumes:
- My life is either awesome or it’s terrible.
- My job is either fantastic or it’s disgusting.
- I am either beautiful or I am ugly.
- My classmates are either smart or they’re stupid.
- I am successful or I’m worthless.
This year, we see it in politics. When party members hear their candidate speak, it is easy to miss their flaws or mistakes. We trust them. When a candidate on the other side speaks, we can always find something wrong with their speech. We don’t trust them. We are either Republicans or we’re Democrats. All-or-nothing thinking blinds us to realities in our own lives and in the lives of others. It is especially unhealthy in students who are still forming their sense of identity, beliefs, and values.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Ashley Thorn says this kind of thinking “means you have only two options: things have to be one way or another, and there is no gray area or in-between.”
Tracey is a great example. This 17-year-old perfectionist once held the view that she was awesome. She made straight A’s and led a club on campus. This year, however, she did poorly on an exam, and her self-esteem plummeted. Why? All-or-nothing thinking. Since she obviously wasn’t awesome anymore, she must be a loser. She went from one extreme to the other.
Vikings or Victims?
Research psychologist Brene Brown says too often people today become “Vikings or Victims.” Vikings are the conquerors, who only see themselves winning, beating others in every competition. Victims are the opposite. While they may be just as gifted or intelligent as any Viking, they’ve developed a black-and-white assumption that they’re on the other side of the competition. They are a victim of the system without the resources to succeed. Both of these mindsets see the world as a “eat or be eaten” place.
It’s quite disheartening when it defines their very identities.
Whether we are Vikings or Victims, we possess a fixed mindset, a term coined by Stanford research psychologist Carol Dweck. “We are either good at reading or we are not.” This prevents Vikings from seeing their own flaws and growing out of them, and it prevents Victims from seeing the positive qualities they possess and capitalizing on them. Realities are fixed.
So, how can we help them?
Helping Students Break Free from All-or-Nothing Mindsets
1. Discuss the good elements in every bad situation.
When you see a student spiral into all-or-nothing patterns, point out the helpful outcomes that can be found in bad circumstances. I recently spoke to a smart student who wasn’t accepted by a college program he wanted. I said, “Look at it this way. You had six desirable options, now you only have to choose from five. This could be good news.”
2. Enable them to see the flaws in all-or-nothing thinking.
It should be easy to point out the flawed logic of black and white categorizing. There is a little good and bad in every situation. We must avoid exaggerations. After losing a big football game, Joe Namath said, “Nothing is ever as good as it seems; nothing is ever as bad as it seems.” We are all smart in some areas and ignorant in others. We must see all sides.
3. Learn to use the words “and” and “yet.”
Black and white thinking focuses on the word or (We are either good or bad.) and the word but (You are good, but I am not.). What if we said, “I have a lot of great qualities and do a lot of good things, and sometimes, I make mistakes and poor decisions.” Then, Carol Dweck suggests we use the word yet: “I am not good at math, yet….” This is a more accurate view of our reality, and it allows for both honest evaluation and growth.
4. Focus on what can be learned from everyone and everything.
Sometimes students become cynical since they know so much at such a young age. They no longer have heroes because they know their flaws. Sure, George Washington had some poor qualities in his life, but we can still learn much from his leadership. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Learn to eat the fish and spit out the bones.
Katharina Star, PhD, writes:
“All-or-nothing thinking is a negative thinking pattern that’s common in people with panic disorder, depression, or other anxiety-related issues. All-or-nothing thinking is one of many negative thought processes, known as cognitive distortions, that are common among people with anxiety and depression. When thinking in all-or-nothing terms, you split your views into extremes. Everything—from your view of yourself to your life experiences—is divided into black-or-white terms. This leaves room for little, if any, gray area in between.”