Overcoming all-or-nothing thinking

Thank you for joining Stay-in-Bed Mom Blog (SIBMB) for an ongoing positive self-talk series. Self-love starts with positive self-talk. We’ll continue to discuss cognitive distortions, or unhelpful thinking styles, through the lens of parenthood.

A little cognitive distortion here, a little exaggeration there isn’t going to affect your mental state in the short term. However, if your negative thinking becomes chronic, then your mental health will undoubtedly suffer.

black and white blackboard business chalkboard
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What’s all-or-nothing thinking?

Sometimes called “black and white” or polarized thinking, this dysfunctional thinking pattern supports an overly negative and rigid outlook on life. With it, you’re unable or unwilling to see things in shades of gray and instead prefer to think in extremes.

All-or-nothing thinking may underlie many unhealthy psychological states like panic, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and hopelessness.

What’s an example of all-or-nothing thinking?

If I’m not a perfect mom/dad, I have failed.

Either I do it (e.g. parenting) right or not at all.

What does all-or-nothing thinking look like in your mom or dad life?

Things don’t just feel a little messed up — they’re f*cked! “Everything” is going wrong.

A day in the life of a stay-at-home parent isn’t just going poorly — it’s the worst day ever.

It’s not that, that mom at the library story time is being difficult — it’s that “everyone” is.

How can all-or-nothing thinking be harmful?

It makes you focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right and sets you up to see the bad in people, things, and situations rather than the good.

You commit the grave error of moving from part to whole too quickly, which precludes you from seeing the potential positives of a person or a situation.

Am I thinking in “black and white” in my daily life?

You may be if…

You’re uncomfortable with shades of gray and prefer things to be more “black and white.”

You catch yourself using words like always, never, everything, totally, ruined, can’t, everyone, no one, anymore, etc.

  • You “always” do that. (You make a comment that’s directed at your spouse, an older child, a parent, an in-law, etc.)
  • I “always” get taken advantage of as a stay-at-home parent, work-from-home parent, working parent, etc. “No one” respects/appreciates me.
  • I “never” catch a break.
  • Things will “never” get better.
  • I “never” do well in X (e.g. cleaning, cooking, crafting, etc.)
  • My mom/dad life is a “total” disaster.
  • Something’s “totally” wrong with X (e.g. my child’s eating, hygiene, potty training, sleeping, social habits, etc.).
  • I “can’t” do anything right as a parent.
  • I “can’t” handle this (e.g. being a mom/dad, solo parenting, working full-time, etc.).
  • “Everyone” is judging all my parenting actions.
  • I’m not good at X (fill in the blank) “anymore”.

What can I do to overcome all-or-nothing thinking?

  1. Recognize the negative, self defeating thought.

  2. Replace it with a more realistic one.


  • Accentuate the positive. Example:  Focus on your strengths as a parent.
  • Dismiss or parry off self-defeating thoughts. Example:  Acknowledge the intruding thoughts, visualize them (e.g. I like to think of them as black balloons!), and then let them go.
  • Find the good in everyone and everything (including yourself!) Example:  Keep a gratitude journal. Write down one to three good things you’re thankful for that day.
  • Ask yourself if there’s “a gray area” to consider. Example:  If I’m not a perfect mom/dad I have failed. Either I do it (e.g. parenting) right or not at all. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent, so just be a real one.
  • Accept that setbacks happen. Example:  My child was fully potty trained, but now he’s regressed and having accidents again. He won’t soil his pants forever (well probably not!).
  • Consider all options. Example: Perhaps I can work from home “and” stay at home with my children.
  • Use “and” instead of “or”. Example: I’m a good person “and” a bad person – Yes, I have good qualities and do good things “and” sometimes I make mistakes and poor decisions.
  • Separate your self-worth from performance. Example:  Strive for progress not perfection.


  • Focus on your faults/weaknesses. Example:  My child scored a few 1s (on a 3-1 scale, 3 being the highest) on his preschool report card, therefore I’m not doing enough for my child to support him in his weak areas.
  • Dwell on self-defeating thoughts. Example:  See above. I have failed as a parent.
  • Look for the negative in a person or situation. Example:  Your children fight over a toy in the playroom. They are bad sharers who will “never” share well with each other.
  • Think in “black and white” extremes. Example:  If I’m not a perfect mom/dad I have failed. Either I do it (e.g. parenting) right or not at all.
  • Ruminate on your “failures”, personal or professional losses. Example:  I’ve been at home with my children the last three and a half years. I’ll “never” get a teaching job again.
  • Close off options. Example: I must stay at home with my children “or” work full-time and get childcare.
  • Overuse “or”. See above example.
  • Equate your self-worth with performance. Example:  My child scored mostly 3s (on a 3-1 scale, 3 being the highest) on his preschool report card, therefore I’m a good parent.
photo of head bust print artwork
Photo by meo on Pexels.com


A Final Thought – From the Pillow

I’m a “total” disaster. I am (mom/dad) enough.

So keep talking back to your brain.

What strategies have worked for you for overcoming all-or-nothing thinking?

One thought on “Overcoming all-or-nothing thinking

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: