From all or nothing thinking to flexibility and freedom


Many people with perfectionism set strict rules and standards, and decide how well they perform using “all or nothing thinking”, where they judge things in extremes, something is either “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, a “complete failure” or a “complete success”, without a middle ground.

Because the rules are so strict and hard to achieve (e.g. I must always score above 80%), often the person fails to achieve them and sees herself as a “complete failure” (e.g. because she scored 79% for a test). Moreover, when a person does reach her goal, instead of thinking that she is a “complete success”, she is likely to think that the goal was too easy and reset the next goal even higher (e.g. achieving above 85% for tests). 

Here are some examples of all or nothing thinking in areas of perfectionism. Which ones sound like you?

Area Example of all or nothing thinking That's Me!
Eating/weight/shape If I eat one chocolate biscuit, then I have completely failed. If I weigh 51kg, and not my perfect goal of 50kg, I have completely failed.
Work If I cannot get the whole report finished today, I might as well not even start it.
Study If I do not get grade A, I am a complete failure
Appearance If I do not take 1 hour to dress up before school, my friends will think that I am completely lazy.
Hygiene Unless my hands feel perfectly clean, they are completely dirty and I need to wash them again
Sport Unless I win Athlete of the Year, I might as well give up trying.




Most people are surprised to find that even though they have been judging things in all or nothing thinking for a long time, they feel more relaxed and flexible in their thinking when they set less strict rules.

One of the ways to defeating all or nothing thinking is to create many behavioural experiments.

As seen earlier, Elise’s procrastination and avoidance in writing essays was an all or nothing thinking, and she was able to challenge this through a behavioural experiment.

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