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Is All-or-nothing Thinking Hurting Your Recovery?


Our thoughts, emotions, health, and behavior are all inextricably linked. When any one of these components is altered, the others within that system are as well. For people in recovery from substance use or co-occurring disorders, acknowledging this connection can improve our ability to lead healthy lives.

All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion that can cause all kinds of problems, including anxiety, anger, depression, and even poor health. It means thinking in extremes. Either something is all good or all bad. Thinking in extremes can induce unnecessary misery and undermine a person’s progress. That’s why it’s one of the most common distortions that professionals look for when people come to them for therapy. Here are some ways all-or-nothing thinking can hurt a person’s progress in recovery.

Intense negative emotions

People who tend to think in extremes often perceive things as being either wonderful or terrible. Since hardly anything goes exactly as we would like it to, it is easy to latch onto feelings of doom. As a result, a person with this cognitive distortion may feel a range of emotions from disappointment to despair. In reality, most things fall somewhere in the middle, between complete success and complete disaster. For example, if a project doesn’t come out exactly as we would like, it might still be well done. However, if we tend to think in extremes, we might fixate on one detail that didn’t turn out as we had hoped. This form of self-pity can keep us stuck in “self” and take us out of the present moment..


When extreme thinking takes the form of perfectionism, it can lead to procrastination. Perfectionists avoid starting projects until they believe they can complete them perfectly. Unfortunately, the “perfect” opportunity never really comes, resulting in last minute attempts to meet a deadline (if they even meet them at all). In recovery, we have to be satisfied with doing things imperfectly at first. The prolific writer G.K. Chesterton perhaps put it best when he said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” That is, if something is important, we should take a stab at it. Even if it goes badly, we’re better off for having tried.

Harsh judgments

Extreme thinking can also result in judgmental attitudes toward oneself and others. If someone does something we don’t like, we might decide that person is awful. Most people are a mix of good and bad qualities. Making extreme judgments about people causes us to overlook their positive traits. It’s also alienating. No one likes to be around people who are overly critical. Social support is very important for recovery, so it helps to look for the positive traits in others. It is also important that we learn to judge ourselves constructively. We are often our harshest critics since we are intimately aware of our own mistakes and defects of character. When we turn these feelings in on ourselves, we may isolate or even pretend to be someone we are not. Dishonestly can invariably lead to a feeling of spiritual disconnection and relapse.

Unwillingness to try new things

Extreme thinking can blind us to small improvements. It’s hard to make big changes in life. Most big changes are the cumulative result of many small improvements. For example, eating two slices of pizza might not be extremely healthy, but it’s healthier than eating three. If we think in extremes, we are often unable to act with measured responses to the natural setbacks of life.

Our thoughts, emotions, health, and behavior are all inextricably linked. Rigorously addressing all-or-nothing thinking can better our chances for recovery.

Origins Behavioral Healthcare is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, co-occurring disorders, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety.

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If you or someone you love has a substance use or mental health disorder, Origins Behavioral HealthCare can help. We will work alongside you to provide the most comprehensive treatment available.