All-Or-Nothing Thinking: My Story

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Also called black-and-white thinking: If something isn’t perfect you call it a total failure.
You honk on one wrong note in a piece and you say the whole thing sucked.
You create a lighting effect on your painting that you don’t love and throw the whole thing in the trash.
You don’t achieve a personal record and you say the whole race was a waste of time. (Pun intended.)

My first vivid experience of all-or-nothing thinking occurred when I was a high school freshman and accompanying the chorus on the piano. I briefly lost my place and dropped out for a few bars. I then found my place and completed the piece. When the concert ended I sobbed uncontrollably, believing that I had humiliated myself in front of an auditorium full of students and families. No one could convince me that my lapse wasn’t noticeable or significant. (This also has elements of mind reading, mental filter, discounting the positive, and magnifying.) I refused to play piano in public (though, happily, I still sang in the chorus) for many years.

My all-or-nothing thinking about my sport manifested differently. You might say it was “all-around -or- nothing thinking.” Although I hated vault and balance beam I forced myself to do them because I thought I should compete all-around. (Shoulda-coulda thinking here too. More on that in another post.) Nothing less than all was acceptable. (For those who aren’t into gymnastics: women have 4 events: floor exercise, vault, balance beam, and uneven parallel bars. To compete in all 4 is to compete “all around.”) If I had let myself do the 2 events I really liked—floor and bars—I would have had a lot more fun and been a better gymnast.

In my next post I’ll talk about how to counter all-or-nothing thinking.