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ANTs Pt 3: Combatting All-or-Nothing Thinking

By Andrea Schmitt
I am back with one of my favorite topics: ANTs – automatic negative thoughts. In my previous posts, I outlined the 10 ANTs (also called cognitive or thinking distortions) that happen to all of us and then specifically looked deeper into “Shoulds” and “Mind Reading.” All these thinking patterns are normal but can get complicated when they become chronic, overtaking your life and putting you into a negative downward spiral. Today, I would like to tackle another favourite: All-or-nothing thinking, that is black vs white, right vs wrong, good vs bad.
  1. This way of thinking doesn’t allow for any grey areas, it is “either … or…” Example: You forgot one line in a school play, and you think, “I ruined the whole performance!”
  2. If something is not all of what you want, then it’s none of what you want. Read that again! Example: You have to present a project, take a last look at it and think: “This job is so bad… there’s nothing good about it at all. I don’t even see the point of handing it in!”
  3. You have to perform perfectly on everything or you are a total failure (also called perfectionism). Example: You got an exam back, and the grade was not as good as you hoped. Your thoughts: “Oh, my God, I made so many mistakes. If I can’t do it perfectly, I might as well not bother studying at all next time.”
These thoughts just appear, and one spirals into the next and the next and so on, and suddenly we are feeling down about ourselves and thinking we’re just a horrible disaster/person/girlfriend/student… We turn into our absolute worst critics!
If you read this, you might think, yes, sure, I can see that this is a problem. But the real difficulty is that these thoughts happen so quickly that either you do not even realize them or by the time you grasp them, they are almost gone, and you are already in the next one of your downward spirals.
Next problem: these thoughts are repetitive!  I bet, you had the same thought yesterday, the day before, and maybe over the past months. In your brain, you have involuntarily created a well-worn path for thoughts that “walk in automatically and quickly.” And you don’t even realize it!
And why is this important to know? Because you actually feel what you think! You, like a magician, create the matching feelings to your thoughts! If you think “I am stupid,” you feel stupid. If you think “I am such a loser,” you feel like a loser. With all the negative effects that come with it: you feel down, you start crying or you want to crawl into your bed.
What to do? We have to catch those ants by identifying them and crushing them.

1. Identify

The first clue that you have experienced some “all-or-nothing-thinking”is that you feel bad about yourself: sad, anxious, depressed or worried. Try to remember what you are or were thinking. Example: I feel horrible, my stomach is in knots. Thought: “I ruined the whole performance!”
2. Combat
Ask yourself if the statement can be the absolute truth and talk back to yourself.
  • Can you be absolutely sure that your thought is true? How do you know? Example: Did I really ruin 100% of the performance? Well, it felt like it, but I think I actually didn’t ruin the whole performance, but my part for sure (20%).
  • Look at the facts, search for evidence against the thought and don’t judge.
It can be challenging to see the facts of a situation, but what could be a more realistic way to think?
Example: Really, my whole part? – Well, definitely the last bit of my part. Okay, okay, just one sentence (so, 2 %). The rest was okay, I guess.
3. Make an alternative statement
“I said one sentence wrong. That is 2% compared to 100%. Oh, well! These things happen. Nobody is perfect!”
All of this should show you that your thought was not 100% correct, that there most probably is another way to see this. Quantifying it is a great way to do this.
Remember, nobody is perfect, nobody! Not your teacher, not your parents and not your friends (although they might think or say they are…). We all make mistakes; someone even invented a word for it: “mistake”! That must mean that many people have made them, are making them and will make them. You will be one of them. So, learn to shrug them off! Try it out!
Combating ANTs is not easy. You have to practice and give it some time! But you know now that your thoughts can create your feelings. And once you know how to catch your ANTs, you can laugh into their face and go, “Thanks for your input, but I am not falling for this today and here is why…!” Combat your ANTs, talk back to them and crash them!

Good luck!

Ant with solid fill

Andrea Schmitt is a life coach specializing in teenage girls and a former Stanstead parent (Jessica Lozano Schmitt 2018). Find out more about her services at https://www.globalgirlcoach.com/ or email andrea@globalgirlcoach.com.