Black or White; Yes or No; Fail or Succeed: The Pitfalls of Poor Perceptions.

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Episode Transcript

All-or-Nothing Thinking

• “Gosh, I haven’t read a single book this month and my goal was to read three! I’m horrible at sticking to goals. If I can’t read three books, I may as well not read at all.”
• “I chewed with my mouth open that one time. How could I have done that?! How disgusting. No one will ever be with someone like me. Tasha is going to break up with me tomorrow, I just know it.”

All-or-nothing thinking can also be called tunnel vision. This type of cognitive distortion occurs when you focus only on one outcome or factor to judge an entire situation, and anything else amounts to a failure. Instead of taking a balanced viewpoint, there is only black or white, yes or now, fail or succeed.

As fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Obviously, this is not true, but that’s the stark contrast that this cognitive distortion creates, and it sets you up to feel lousy because failure is the most likely scenario. Not reaching your goal doesn’t immediately signal the end of your world as you know it, and consequences that seem enormous and irreversible rarely are.

All-or-nothing thinking also manifests itself through lists of ironclad rules about behavior or expectations. People who break these rules make us feel angry, and in turn, if we break a rule, we feel guilty. Lists of “shoulds” or “musts” such as “I must go to the gym every day” or “I must arrive at work at least fifteen minutes before my shift begins” might sound motivational, but they leave little room for compromise or adjustment if life events get in the way of your plan.

All of these tendencies create a set of expectations that you are destined to fall short of. And when this happens on a continual basis, you can’t help but feel inadequate and mediocre at best.

To overcome the cognitive distortion of all-or-nothing thinking, you must challenge yourself to see the middle ground.


• “Why can’t our daughter Marsha hold down a job? She is constantly moving from company to company. I think she was even fired from this last position. I must have done something wrong as a parent. If only we had sent her to Laurelswood High School instead of the public school, this never would have happened! It’s all my fault. I should have quit my job and just been there for her.”
• “I feel terrible that Patricia overcooked the pot roast. If only Jeremy and I hadn’t been thirty minutes late for the dinner party. If only I had told him to hurry, this wouldn’t have happened! I take full responsibility for this. I should have cooked everything myself.”

Personalization is the mother of guilt. In the cognitive distortion of taking everything personally, you feel responsible for events that cannot conceivably be your fault. While it is admirable to take responsibility for your actions, some things are completely out of your control: the subway schedule, other people’s actions, and a million day-to-day factors.

While engaging in personalizing, you might believe that everything others say or do is a direct personal reaction to you even when logically this doesn’t fit. It’s pretty difficult to feel good about yourself if you believe you are responsible for all the ills of the world around you. To be confident you have to be able to focus on yourself, not on the perceived reactions of others.

The opposite of personalizing is externalizing. It is another important cognitive distortion to note. When caught in this trap, individuals refuse to blame themselves for anything; instead, they blame everyone and everything else. The world is out to get them, and only them. These individuals blame others for holding them back, causing them pain or sadness, and even point to other people as the cause of life troubles. All of this blame is given without any recognition for the part the individual played in his or her own troubles, pain, or sadness. Neither of these types of thinking are healthy, and they both force you to expend a considerable amount of emotional energy jumping through hoops and agonizing over everyday issues.

In order to escape from both of these cognitive distortions, question what part you actually played in the event and consider options in which you are not entirely to blame.


• “I’m never going to find a girlfriend because my last date went so terribly. I am destined to be single forever.”
• “He will never be on time. He was late for both of our previous meetings. He’s a lost cause. I am not going to meet with him again.”

In the trap of overgeneralization, you take one small negative experience and assume all similar future experiences will be negative. Overgeneralization is unrepresentative of reality because you are operating on minimal experience, information, and evidence. You are jumping to conclusions and constructing a world that doesn’t exist in reality; it is truly an exercise in imagination (a classic sneaky energy drainer).

Common cues of overgeneralization are “always” and “never.” When starting a sentence or a thought with “always” or “never,” consider whether you have the experience or evidence to back up the statement. Do you have the ability to look past your current feelings or the most recent event that is causing you to feel this way? The very nature of emotions is to overwhelm and cloud judgment—perhaps you are merely honoring your emotions instead of seeking a balanced view.

To overcome the trap of overgeneralization, take time to question whether evidence may exist showing that future events could be different. Consider just how little information you have. Has every event of this type in your life ended in exactly the same way, or are there more than a few outliers? Do all of your friends have the exact same story, or have some of them had different experiences?


• “Lacy is out late again. I just know that she’s cheating on me! We’re never going to last as a couple; we have to be heading for divorce. I need to call a lawyer right now.”
• “Why haven’t I received a letter from the University of California yet? They must be rejecting me. I can’t believe it! I’m not going to get into any universities. What am I going to do? I guess I need to start learning how to become a plumber.”

When you engage in catastrophizing, you immediately jump to the worst-case scenario and lose hope because the event seems so imminent. Catastrophizing can cause you to become stressed and anxious. Even the smallest actions can have enormous consequences. How stable and energetic can you really be if every day you appear to be facing your own personal version of the apocalypse?

As with other cognitive distortions, a degree of introspection and thinking about your thoughts is necessary. Slow down and question whether things are truly as bad as you are making them seem. Are your assumptions even realistic? Consider alternative explanations and past experiences in similar situations.

Ask yourself: In past similar situations, what did I do and how did the event turn out? How would an innocent bystander explain the situation? What am I fixating on and why?

Jumping to Conclusions

• “Why didn’t David smile back at me this morning? He must think the project proposal I sent him yesterday afternoon is stupid!”
• “There’s no point in even going to the gym. I’m never going to reach my goal of running that 10k with Candace.”

Jumping to conclusions occurs when you make an irrational assumption about people or circumstances based on personal opinion and feeling. It begins with feelings of inadequacy or insecurity which influence the way you perceive events and statements. When you observe something that supports your worst fears, you take it as a confirmation of everything you secretly knew to be terrible and true. Just like with other cognitive distortions, it causes you to fall down a rabbit hole of negativity until you end up at the worst possible conclusion.

There are two categories within the cognitive distortion of jumping to conclusions: mind-reading and fortune-telling. While engaging in mind-reading, you assume you know what someone else is thinking. It is impossible to know exactly what someone else is thinking, yet with this cognitive distortion, people make decisions based on the imagined thoughts of other people. And of course, you assume people are always thinking the worst about you.

Fortune-telling involves predicting negative future events without evidence. When engaging in fortune-telling, you predict only negative outcomes for the future and have no real basis for doing so. Fortune-telling makes any semblance of optimism impossible.

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