How to Combat All-Or-None Thinking and Overgeneralization

woman thinking deeply sitting
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Cognitive distortions, or negative thought patterns, are incorrect and unrealistic ways of thinking about the world. Because our thoughts have such a huge impact on our moods and emotions, we need to be mindful of how we think – and the kinds of negative thought patterns we fall into. Those who have depression and anxiety disorders tend to also have these cognitive distortions, including “all-or-none” thinking and overgeneralizing. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at what these cognitive distortions are and how to combat them. 

All-or-None thinking – What does it mean?

All-or-none thinking is thinking in absolutes or extremes. It is one of the most common cognitive distortions and uses words like “always, never, every.” When you have an all-or-none mentality, either you are a success, or a total failure. Either your performance was awesome or amazing or horrible. If you’re not perfect, you’re a total loser. It is a binary way of thinking and doesn’t leave room for shades of gray. It can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and other people. 

The more we rely on such cognitive distortions to interpret events or to make decisions, then the worse we tend to feel. If we are coming from an inaccurate perception or assumptions of a situation, it influences our feelings and our behaviors and will make us feel worse and become a downward spiral.

An example of All-Or-None thinking:

For example, let’s say you went on a job interview and there was one question out of many you may have struggled on but you did great on the rest. “All-or-none” thinking may include thoughts such as “This interview was terrible. I am not getting this job and my job prospects are hopeless.” This leads to negative emotions such as hopelessness and discouragement. 

“All-or-None thinking” operates under the unrealistic rule that if something isn’t 100% perfect, it might as well be 0%. There are no shades of gray and leads to harsh and negative judgments of ourselves, of others around us, and of our future. It affects our self-esteem and can disrupt our efforts to change behaviors. 

Overgeneralization – what does this mean?

Another type of common cognitive distortion is overgeneralization. This is a cognitive distortion where you make broad, sweeping generalizations from a single event or from just a few events. It is a way of thinking where we apply one experience to all experiences, even those that haven’t even happened yet. If you experience overgeneralization, you’re likely to experience any negative event as part of an inevitable pattern of mistakes.

An example of Overgeneralization:

Perhaps one day at work, you were feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for a presentation. Your presentation did not go so well in the meeting and you’re thinking about what went wrong. 

Overgeneralization may involve thoughts like “I always mess up on presentations, I will never be able to speak well in public and get ahead in my job. I might as well forget it and not try anymore.” Or let’s say someone went on a job interview and did not get an offer. They may fall into the trap of thinking: “I’m never going to get a job, why would I even bother trying?” These thoughts lead to emotions of hopelessness and discouragement and then lead to behaviors that are unhelpful. 

Overgeneralization is almost always inaccurate and very limiting, keeping people from meeting their full potential. If you’re making an overgeneralization by thinking things like “I am never going to be good enough and I can never do anything right. Why bother even trying?” or “My date never called me back. I will never be able to find a romantic partner. I might as well just give up.” – these cognitive distortions keep a person from growing and making steps to move them forward in relationships and in their career. 

How can we combat Cognitive Distortions like all-or-none thinking and overgeneralization?

Here are some strategies on how to combat all-or-none thinking and overgeneralization.

Look for shades of gray and challenge the extremes: 

The antidote to all-or-none thinking and overgeneralization is to make an effort to look for shades of gray. Instead of allowing self-defeating thoughts like: “I will never get a job” or “I did so poorly on the job interview”, you can take a deep breath and think about what are alternative ways to reframe your thoughts on what just happened? 

Instead of thinking: “I did so poorly on the job interview”, you could say to yourself: “I was caught off guard by one question, but the rest of the interview went well enough. In any case, I will be even better in the next interview I have.” 

Rather than beating yourself up and telling yourself: “I will never get a job, why bother trying?” you could reframe your thoughts and say: “Even though it is difficult to get a job right now, if I continue trying I know I can get one.” If you continue harboring thoughts of defeat and failure, then you are indeed setting yourself up for failure.

Practice mindfulness and self-compassion:

Mindfulness practices encourage a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, which can mitigate the intense emotions resulting from cognitive distortions. By cultivating mindfulness, you can observe your own thoughts without immediately reacting or accepting them as hard truths. 

In other words, when you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts such as: “I will never be successful” or “I am a failure” take a deep breath and realize that while your thoughts and emotions are valid, it does not mean that they are facts. You can decenter yourself from your negative, self-defeating thoughts and just let them pass. 

Instead of talking to yourself with harsh self-judgment and berating yourself for perceived failures, you can practice self-compassion. It involves treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding as one would a friend or a beloved person. This can help you acknowledge imperfections without self-condemnation. 

Reframing our Cognitive Distortions using the Gospel:

Here are ways to reframe our negative thought patterns using the Gospel:

– Remember that it is a cognitive distortion: I may feel unlovable, but it does not mean that I AM lovable.

– Realize that it may have been an intrusive thought from elsewhere (Satan) or trying to make it large and believable: “Just because I think this statement does not make this statement a fact. Opinions are not facts. The devil would definitely love to make me believe that this is a fact.”

– I can challenge this statement with the truth “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Roman 5:8). If God loved me even before I knew Him, before I was even aware of my unlovable sinful state, then how can I believe I’m unlovable. If God loves a loser like me, then I’m not really a loser.”

– I need to fill my mind with the truth: that God loves me. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38 39).

Enjoyed our blogpost? Subscribe to our newsletter for more resources on mental health and integrating the Gospel message in your healing journey. 

If you found our resources useful, please consider donating to Oak Health Foundation, which is a 501(3)c nonprofit dedicated to providing resources regarding holistic mental healthcare and subsidized treatment for those in need.

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