All or nothing thinking

Updated: Apr 6

If you have read Trainspotting, you will know that one of the main characters, Spud, attends an interview for a job he doesn’t want, and purposefully tries to sabotage the interview.

When he is asked to describe his weaknesses during the interview, he exclaims “Ah suppose man, ah’m too much ay a perfectionist, ken? It’s likesay, if things go a bit dodgy, ah jist cannae be bothered” (Welsh, 1993).

While this is an exaggerated and humorous example of all or nothing thinking, in truth this type of thought pattern has the potential to be a real form of damaging self-sabotage.

It is human nature that we all engage in negative thinking at times, and it only becomes a problem when these thoughts dominate our thinking processes. When negative thoughts dominate, they may reflect accurate representations of the world, however, more commonly these thoughts can be inaccurate and biased in certain ways and may lack evidence as being the truth. All or nothing thinking is a negative thought process involving dividing your thoughts into extremes or absolutes. An example of this is thinking you are either a success or a failure, with no middle ground in-between. Other examples include thinking “My life is a total mess”, “No one likes me”, or “I’ll never get it right!”.

Research suggests that different mental health problems are associated with particular styles of thinking, with the all-or-nothing thinking style tending to be a dominant thought pattern in people experiencing depression and anxiety disorders. All or nothing thinking can be both a consequence and a cause of emotional problems.

So how do we escape this pattern of thinking if we are experiencing it regularly?

If this style of thinking has become a deep-seated pattern established over many years, professional help may be required to untangle it, however, a good first step towards moving away from this type of thinking is to remember that you have a choice in what you think. Always.

You can begin to challenge this thought pattern by noticing the thoughts and when they are occurring. As we experience more than 6000 thoughts per day, one way to narrow down what thoughts we are noticing is to record the automatic negative thoughts associated with three situations we experience per day, over the space of a week (Murdock, 2020). Recording and evaluating these thoughts may consist of using free thought recording sheets online or you could make your own by listing:

  • The situation (what is happening),

  • Unhelpful thoughts and feelings associated with the situation,

  • Evaluation of the thought – is there any evidence to support that this thought is actually a fact?

  • Alternative thoughts and responses – what would someone else say about the situation or thought?

  • What would be a different thought or response to try next time (Vivyan, 2009).

By analysing, evaluating, and considering alternative thoughts, you are taking important first steps towards breaking this cycle.


Murdock, J. (2020). Humans have more than 6000 thoughts per day, Psychologists discover.,-By%20Jason%20Murdock&text=The%20average%20person%20will%20typically,into%20the%20human%20brain%20suggests.

Vivyan, C. (2009). Depression thought record sheet.

Welsh, I. (1993). Trainspotting. Vintage, London.

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