Republican or Democrat; Black or White; mask or no mask. Trump or Obama. The world is full of absolutes. You have to pick one or the other!
In exploring part two of my series on Cognitive Distortions, let’s look at All-or-Nothing thinking. Cognitive Distortions are the ways our brain unknowingly twists information to lead us to make faulty conclusions. All-or-Nothing thinking is one of more than ten cognitive distortions developed by Dr. Albert Beck, the Father of CBT. Other names for All-or-Nothing include, Black-and-White Thinking, or Polarized Thinking. It is an inability or unwillingness to see the middle, the gray area. We hold fast to a belief and filter out all new information that could challenge that way of thinking. When this cognitive distortion is in play, we are not open to discussing things. We can make problematic decisions based on our faulty thinking.
Division isn’t a new concept. Group dynamics often involves division of some sort. The first division described in the Bible is of the once glorious angel Lucifer (now called Satan) who decided he was too handsome to sit beneath God. It appears that a combination of pride and selfish ambition led Lucifer to divide the angels and assemble an army of soldiers to fight, basically, God. *Spoiler Alert* God wins in the end. But, from that moment forward, we have division. Good vs. Evil. God vs. Satan.
With God, we are either in relationship with him and seeking him, or we are not. There is no gray. No, “a little bit Christian.” But what about other areas? Can we apply this Yes/No thinking in harmful ways?
As a child, I visited my grandparents during the summer. My mother’s family lived in Lufkin, Texas. One summer, I was introduced to Steven. Steven always smiled. I was only five, and I saw him outside alone a lot, bobbing from side to side as he walked down the street. Whenever I saw Steven, I ran home to my grandmother’s house and closed the door tight behind me. I was terrified of Steven, he had an intellectual disability. Back then we called it mental retardation.
Steven never tried to hurt me. He always smiled and waved and mumbled something I never understood. But he was different, and I was terrified. To my five year old thinking, different meant bad. Very bad. I spent my summer enjoying melted Dreamsicles, stomping fire ants, dancing to disco with my cousins, and running from Steven.
Then one evening, for some reason, all us children formed a circle in the center of the complex. My cousin Oscar volunteered to shake Steven’s hands. Oscar went right up to Steven and extended his hand, and Steven reached out and shook Oscar's hand and smiled. After that, other kids moved in closer to Steven too. He wasn’t so scary anymore. He was just another kid. But in my All-or-Nothing thinking, I decided that different was bad. That different was something to run home and slam the door on. In exploring where that thought came from, I can’t find a reason. No one with an intellectual disability had ever hurt me, I was just afraid. Thanks to my cousin, Oscar, I wasn’t afraid anymore.
All-or-Nothing thinking is the belief that, despite evidence to the contrary, something is either all good or all bad. This can happen in ongoing relationships too, when we end a relationship with a friend or family member because they do something that hurts our feelings, or we reject someone because they don’t measure up. It can happen in dating when we stay in painful relationships, ignoring the harm we are doing to ourselves. “He’s a good person.” “I know she hurts me, but she loves me.” We stay, even when the evidence says otherwise.
One way to counter All-or-Nothing thinking is to identify the absolutes in our thinking. Do hold our position even when presented with evidence that weakens our argument? Do we say entire groups of people are bad, worthless, stupid? Have we eliminated all of our friends because they don’t measure up? Do we hate ourselves because of something from the past, or an aspect of our appearance? Do you find yourself saying absolute terms such as “always, and never?” If you find your thinking leaning in a negative direction, you can try to intentionally look for the positive aspects of the situation.
Today, I’m grateful for the memory of Steven and his beautiful smile.
Pam C. Dudley, MSW, LCSW, is a writer, stage director, social worker, and CBT certified therapist pursuing the creative life in Corsicana, Texas. She is most passionate about sharing the love of Christ, helping people heal from hurts, and writing musicals! She is the owner of My Write Mind, PLLC Counseling Center, now offering virtual therapy sessions. PamDudley.com