Why Do I Go to Extremes? All or Nothing Thinking and Finding the Meaning of Life

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Today we’re going to take a look at dichotomous thinking and how it can interfere with finding the meaning of life for yourself. Dichotomous thinking has been described as ‘all or nothing thinking,’ ‘black and white thinking,’ and ‘either or thinking.’

     Black-and-white thinking blinds us from ‘the light’ that exists in our lives, amidst the heartache and pain that live beside it.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

Basically, the idea is that one of the ways we get hamstrung in our thoughts and lose perspective is to take an extreme position and fail to recognize the ambiguities or gray areas that muddy the waters.

Dichotomous thinking often takes the form of extreme beliefs like “No one really loves me” or “The world is full of bad people.”

We also see it everyday in politics and the news. Political opponents are cast as ‘enemies’ who are on the ‘wrong side of history.’

Of course, there’s a reason why our brains are drawn to think this way. Seeing the nuance in everything would be exhausting. Rules of thumb are needed to quickly categorize information and guide everyday decision-making. Part of surviving in the world involves constantly making distinctions between healthy vs. unhealthy foods, dependable vs. untrustworthy people, good vs. bad decisions, and so on.

But problems arise when this pattern of hastily categorizing information begins to creep into the most central and intimate aspects of our lives, like our beliefs about marriage (e.g., He never picks up after himself), career (e.g., I’m stuck in a dead end), or parenting (I’m no good at this).

Time and time again, this kind of dichotomous thinking has been shown to be a risk factor for depression, extreme perfectionism, and an eroded sense of emotional well-being.

It can also hold us back from finding meaning and purpose in our lives.

Meaning is often found in the spaces that exists somewhere in between the extremes, embedded within the ironies and paradoxes of everyday life. As the singer-songwriter, Ryan Adams, once put it, “Darkness isn’t anything but the space in between the light.”

And if you’ll indulge me in taking this metaphor a bit further, we might then say that black-and-white thinking blinds us from ‘the light’ that exists in our lives, amidst the heartache and pain that live beside it. Like a dull signal, the little bits of meaning get drowned out by a loud clatter of extreme opinions, beliefs, and worldviews.

If you find yourself having all-or-nothing thoughts like “I’m no good” or “life sucks,” then try our exercise, which helps you pinpoint dichotomous thoughts and gain a better appreciation for the shades of gray hiding in between the extremes.

TRY EXERCISE: Dichotomous Thinking Exercise  

Also, come back in this week for more on how to change negative thinking.

Tomorrow’s piece focuses on ways to tame your inner critic. Then on Wednesday, you can take our quiz to find out more about what kinds of negative and automatic thoughts are most common for you.

Thursday’s article explores some of the most poisonous thinking traps we can get ourselves in and their antidote. We then finish the week on Friday by taking a look at thoughts and beliefs about our own thinking patterns (formally referred to as meta-cognitive beliefs) and how they can serve to maintain negative ways of thinking. So, come back everyday this week for more on combating negative thoughts.

And let us know in the comments below how you have dealt with extreme thoughts in your life. How have they helped and hurt you? How have you learned to see the ‘shades of gray’ in life?


Further Reading:















Andersen, S. M. (1990). The inevitability of future suffering: The role of depressive predictive certainty in depression. Social Cognition, 8, 203-228.

Beevers, C. G., Keitner, G. I., Ryan, C. E., & Miller, I. W. (2003). Cognitive predictors of symptom return following depression treatment. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 112, 488-496

Berlin, S. B. (1990). Dichotomous and complex thinking. Social Service Review, 64, 46-59.

Bridges, K. R., & Harnish, R. J. (2010). Role of irrational beliefs in depression and anxiety: A review. Health, 2, 862-877.

Egan, S. J., Piek, J. P., Dyck, M. J., & Rees, C. S. (2007). The role of dichotomous thinking and rigidity in perfectionism. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1813-1822.

Krishen, A., Nakamoto, K., & Herr, P. M. (2012). The Dichotomy Heuristic in Choice: How Contrast Makes Decisions Easier. AV Akademikerverlag.

Lethbridge, J., Watson, H. J., Egan, S. J., Street, H., & Nathan, P. R. (2011). The role of perfectionism, dichotomous thinking, shape and weight overvaluation, and conditional goal setting in eating disorders. Eating Behaviors, 12, 200-206.

Napolitano, L. A., & McKay, D. (2007). Dichotomous thinking in borderline personality disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 31, 717-726.

Oshio, A. (2009). Development and validation of the Dichotomous Thinking Inventory. Social Behavior and Personality, 37, 729-741.

Randall, W. L. (2012). The importance of being ironic: Narrative openness and personal resilience in later life. The Gerontologist, 53, 9-16.

Veen, G., & Arntz, A. (2000). Multidimensional dichotomous thinking characterizes borderline personality disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 24, 23-45.


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