Discovering Ideas

English Composition Spring 2009 Palomar College

All-or-Nothing Thinking

We engage in all-or-nothing thinking when we accept automatic thoughts which describe events in black-and-white categories, with no shades of gray. It is a more extreme form of magnification and minimization in which we minimize to the point that many positive aspects of life completely disappear from sight. Such automatic thoughts lead to a kind of perfectionism that defines everything short of 100% success as a failure. To a point, such perfectionism can lead us to try harder; but in the long run, inevitably, it tends to discourage us from trying at all. Since we encounter very little black or white in the real world, this kind of thinking squeezes much of the brightness out of our view of the world: all the shades of gray come to look as black as night.

A few years ago I was teaching a class in which several standardized tests were required. One semester, a woman took the class who got the highest total score on the standardized tests that I've ever recorded in that class. Out of a possible 200 points on the four tests, she missed five. But when this woman got her first essay back, she found several criticisms and suggestions for improvement. (The essay was not graded.) She seemed depressed and irritable in class for several days after getting the essay back. Finally, I persuaded her to come in and talk to me about it, and I asked her what she was so concerned about.

"Well," she said hopelessly, "I guess I'm just going to get an 'F' in this class." From her point of view, her essay wasn't perfect, so it was worthless. Her automatic thoughts on receiving the essay back were probably something like this: "There are flaws in this essay, even after I worked hard on it, so I wasted my time. I produced nothing of value." That's all-or-nothing thinking.

This cognitive distortion can be devastating when you are trying to learn a new skill or improve your performance in an old one. A sculptor who thinks in terms of all-or-nothing will never finish a statue because the first stages of the work will always be rough. A writer who sees her rough draft as either finished or failed will never really finish an essay. You must accept your first draft as potentially good, but unfinished, in order to improve it. Many students fail to produce good essays not because they produce bad ones, but because they never finish the good ones they start.


1996 John Tagg


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Discovering Ideas
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This page was last edited: 01/05/09