All Or None Thinking

Published on August 28th, 2019

A friend of mine recently asked if I had any experience with all-or-none-thinking. I wanted to respond, "Always! Never!" in my typical #dadjoke fashion. However, when "the stakes are high and the moment is brief" (to quote Joel Roberts), this subject matter warrants a serious, nuanced conversation.

Take the dark subject matter of suicide. It's literally fatal, and yet (I believe) it should be preventable in most situations. There are entire industries dedicated to supporting mental health through treatment centers, medication, therapy, hotlines, etc. However, this TEDx Talk (Why We Choose Suicide) offers an insightful take on the experience. When standing at the ledge of self-inflicted death, the overwhelming feeling is that there is no other way. It's as if the rich array of options gets compressed into a false dilemma between two terrible choices: die to gain freedom or live in extreme pain. Where's the hope in such a decision? There is none. It has been squeezed out of the picture.

Less dire (but still significant) are the black and what statements we make every day. You can catch them if you listen carefully. You'll hear the words always or never sprinkled throughout.

  • "You never care about me."
  • "You always hurt me."
  • "You never even tried."
  • "You always give up."
  • "You never prioritize me."

Such opinions are just that: opinions. Yet, they often ignore objective data because the "always" or "never" intensifier reflects the pain we feel and ignores reality. In these types of situations, all-or-none thinking can be painful and harmful.

But, Is It Ever Valuable?

Yes. Again, we need to be careful not to lump all or none thinking into NEVER being useful. As Jack Canfield says in his book The Success Principles: "100% is Easy; 99% is a Bitch." The point is that there are some situations in life where having a strict policy or boundary can save us a lot of time and energy.

Take alcoholism as an example. If you've ever met someone that has battled with this type of addiction, you know that there is no middle ground. One drink can send the person into a tailspin back into rock bottom. To them, being alcohol-free is not an option. Sobriety becomes an essential part of their life. It becomes their identity, which gives them unwavering strength to stay the course despite daily opportunities to have "just one drink."

Here are other examples of (usually helpful) all or none policies:

  • I never do drugs.
  • I never drink alcohol.
  • I never stay with a cheating partner.
  • I never tolerate violence.
  • I always forgive.
  • I always love my child.
  • I always do my best.
  • I always get enough sleep.
  • I always treat people with respect.

In my experience, a good rule of thumb on whether or not all-or-none thinking is useful is precisely that. Ask yourself, is all-or-none thinking in this context helpful or harmful? If it's harmful, consider how you can be more flexible and see the gradations and grey areas. If it's useful, consider developing a stronger conviction with a more black and white approach. Understand that things may change.

When I was younger, my family's alcohol problem led me to take a strict alcohol-free stance so as to "never be like them." With time, I found that I could have a non-destructive relationship with alcohol and choose to participate or not. And still, I could go back to a zero-tolerance policy if things changed again. Context is very helpful in knowing what's helpful.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.