person helping a friend to the light from dark

Lies of the inner critic: All-or-Nothing

This is a series of articles that talk about the lies of the inner critic, called cognitive distortions. They are clever and some of them are similar. Let’s walk through them, how I have seen it, and what I have done to counteract it.

This first lie that we will talk through is known as “All-or-nothing”, “Black-and-White” or “Polarized” thinking.

What is it?

A way to think about all-or-nothing thinking is to think about how our brain works to identify objects, words, and people. The brain processes what you are seeing and breaks it down into simple shapes for easy recognition. It is the reason we see people who look familiar but you don’t know who they are. It is the same thing that makes it so we can see a boat in both of these images.

image of a boat compared to an icon of a boat

This process of breaking down complexity into something simpler helps us to quickly recognize what we are seeing as well as quickly evaluate other things we are experiencing like when there is too much information coming at us at once. Our brain takes that information and starts to break it down into simpler forms that we can digest easier. This way outcomes from our decisions can be narrowed into ones that we care about instead of getting lost in the endless routes that could happen.

This function of our brain is awesome when working correctly. When dealing with depression or anxiety this function starts to work against us. In All-or-Nothing thinking the options are simplified too much and we are unable to see any types of in between results and conclusions. For example we might see ourselves as a slow runner because when we didn’t finish the turkey trot this year and then feel that we are failures at everything because of it.

The truth is that most people are not great or terrible, unless I guess they have run a marathon in under 2 hours. The reality is that you are somewhere on the spectrum and that spectrum moves all the time. The idea of great, terrible, amazing, or worthless are all relative terms though we tend to think of them as superlatives. Does a person need to finish first in a race to be great? Last to be terrible? Can a person finish first, and be terrible? Or last and be great? We need to allow ourselves to see the situation as it really is, not just in this black and white, binary thinking.

When I have recognized it in me

Let me give an example from my own life. While I was working at a large California based company I was put over a project that was a really fun project. I was working hard and had delivered a working product much faster than anticipated. The reception was awesome. Soon after my project was canceled and I was let go. It was sudden and devastating. We had just bought a home and moved our family for this position.

I reached out to my friends and received a wonderful response of people wanting to help me. I applied to a lot of positions. One by one I was dismissed from each of them, often before I was even interviewed. My inner critic started its relentless attack. How could it resist I was vulnerable. “No one wants you.” it would repeat over and over. “You’re never going to get hired. The truth is that you are worthless as a worker. They can see right past your smile and that you are really an idiot.”

Did you catch the example of All-or-Nothing thinking there? In the lies of the inner critic he slipped in “No one wants you”,”You’re never going to…”,”you are worthless”, and “you are really an idiot”. All of these demonstrate the All-or-Nothing distortion. Let’s look at them one by one.

The “no one wants you” distortion

In my interview process my brain simplified the situation for me. As I was searching through job postings there were literally thousands to choose from. I remember feeling overwhelmed at how many. That is one reason I went to my friends, to try and narrow the options. After I started applying my brain started to remove that complexity and I didn’t think about all the jobs I didn’t apply for. I was now thinking only of the ones I had applied for.

The truth is that, for one reason or another, I didn’t seem to fit the jobs I applied for. The lie in “no one” is from forgetting about the whole field. Of the thousands of jobs available, I found a few that didn’t want to hire me or didn’t get back to me in relation to the thousands that I didn’t apply for. A few to thousands does not represent “no one” but sometimes we think it does.

There is another lie in this statement. It is in the term “want.” That is a simplification also. I was searching for a job my mind was thinking about work and my professional abilities, but in my mind it started to blur with “no one wants me” for anything. My profession is only a small part of the picture. I am a husband and father. I am a son. I am a friend and a human. These are things that can’t be taken away from me. I am also a triathlete, a fisherman, a golfer. I am compassionate and care deeply for people and want to help them. What part of applying for jobs said I was a bad father? My family wanted me. In fact my kids were sad when I got another position because they knew I wouldn’t be with them as much. I was wanted.

To overcome this, with the help of my wife, I started to think about how much I was wanted and how few positions I had actually applied for. I was able to see the whole field instead of the simplified version. Though it was still hard with every application and every rejection, but I was able to keep going.

The  “You’re never going to…” distortion

Never is a really long time. It is amazing how often we jump to “always” or “never”. These words are really full of finality. The reality is that “never” and “always” are rare. I have tried to train my mind to listen for the words “always” and “never” and words that relate to them. When I notice it becomes a flag of simplification for me. This applies equally to people and situations.

In the case of my job search the likely hood of “never” being hired was ridiculously low. I needed to allow myself to see that reality. As I continued to look for job opportunities I eventually found a company that hired me. “Never” is a lie. Don’t let it keep you from moving forward.

“You’re worthless and an idiot” distortion

This is similar to the idea of no one wants me. I needed to feel that there was a reason that people didn’t want to hire me. I felt that because I was let go, I must be worthless and an idiot. Why would someone want to hire a worthless person.

Similar to the other statements, this is taking your thinking out of context and placing all value on one thing. In this case I was placing all value on getting hired and that I had no value if I wasn’t hired. It discounted all other value because it wasn’t in focus. The truth is that I have lots of value. I can make my family laugh. I can take care of my child when hurt. I have lots more value than what I was seeing. When I took a step back I realized that I had a lot more value than I thought. It was healing to write down things that made me smart and valuable. Other can also do the same thing and write down what they see as valuable in you.

Seeing the truth

Don’t get me wrong here. This process isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to defy your brain. It is hard, and very uncomfortable. When you are thinking straight it is easy to see these distortions, but in the moment it really does feel like the world is falling on top of you. In this particular case I had my wife to walk me through it with a kind but firm hand. She didn’t give up on me. There are people who want to support you, we are some of them.

In each of these situations the path to see the truth was the same. I identified what the inner critic was saying th
en looked for ways it was simplified. In the case of ‘never’ or ‘no one’ I looked for ways that it was a lie.In the case of ‘worthless’ or ‘idiot’ I looked for ways that I had worth and brilliance.

When working through these distortions I have found it is really important to be able to take a step back and broaden your vision in order to see the truth. Sometimes you need another persons perspective to do that. When you see the truth, write down what you see. Allow yourself to see more of you than the current problem. This will reveal what is actually true.

Scroll to Top