Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Today I want to write about the brain BS of all or nothing thinking. Where does this mentality come from? Is it really working for us? Is it working against us? We see this in our assessments of other humans as well as when we evaluate ourselves. What is with us humans that we perceive ourselves, other people, and so many situations in a such a black or white way?
Well, let me answer that last question first! Our primitive brain offers us all or nothing thinking because it is trying to keep us safe and comfortable. It wants to keep everything black and white and crystal clear to ensure our survival with the tribe. Back in the day, you better be paying attention to the tribe member standing next to you and make sure they have your back because your life could depend on it. If that member did something questionable or unacceptable to the tribe, that was it. They were out. Period.
These days our safety is not as much an issue as our emotional well-being has become. I recognize there are many exceptions to this, but this blog post is in relation to our mental health. I am going to point out to you how all or nothing thinking can protect us in very real ways, but it can also sabotage us in other ways.
For example, let us consider the heroin addict. Clearly, all or nothing is an attitude to be embraced for this individual from a consumption standpoint. This also holds true for the alcoholic who is powerless over alcohol and trying to stay clean. In this way, all or nothing thinking is valuable and necessary for the addict to abstain and continue to recover. In addition, their 100% commitment to not indulging in any substances can hopefully free up their brain to focus on other things. Pretty sure nobody is going to win an argument in favor of moderation in this situation.
On the flip side, however, the judgements we have about the addict and alcoholic can also be all or nothing which is much less useful. We might meet somebody and think they are awesome and want to get to know them better. We might consider dating them, working with them, working for them, hiring them, or just becoming friends with them. When we do get to know them better and hear about their addiction history, our primitive brain may shut down the desire to connect further in order to ensure our safety.
We might think about what if they use again? What made them use in the first place? What is wrong with them? What if I get hurt? We go from focusing on all the good in them and replace it with judgements and fear. We think that their history of addiction is the problem, but it is really how we are now thinking about them. They are the same person, but we can no longer focus on the positive in them anymore. This often times leads to us not hiring them, severing relationships, and rejecting the opportunity to connect with other humans in a meaningful way based on their past behavior.
Here is another example of that same all or nothing thinking but in relation to ourselves. For instance, let’s imagine The Brain BS Podcast has been getting good reviews and the feedback I am getting is overall positive and encouraging. Then one day I put out a podcast and deeply offend somebody because I unknowingly said something ignorant. The podcast was published, and the backlash was quick and intense.
My first reaction would be to beat myself up for what I did wrong and totally immerse myself in negative emotions. I would literally lose sight of anything I may have done correctly in that podcast episode and all of the other ones, because I would now be 100% focused on what I did wrong in that one. This is what human brains do! This does not mean there is anything wrong with our brains. It just means we have to be aware enough to know when they are in their “all or nothing” mode so we can supervise them.
Another great and perhaps obvious example of all or nothing thinking, is in the political arena. Why is it that everybody believes that if somebody supports opposing candidates or policies, that there is nothing redeemable or good about that other person? As if they are totally bad because they have different thoughts and are not doing what we think they should be doing. This is so clear at the government level and even in our own families. What makes us think we can tell another human being how they should live their life and who they should support politically? I know!!! It is our brain trying to help us feel safe and protected again. Only problem is, it does not work.
We also see all or nothing thinking in relationships. We like or love that other person until they do one thing that we just decide is unforgiveable and inexcusable. Never mind all of the good things they did prior to that, as soon as they hurt us our brains want to run! Even if we do not leave physically, we often times do emotionally in an effort to protect ourselves. We put our guard up because we no longer feel safe being vulnerable and authentic with them.
There is a lot of all or nothing thinking early on in dating. We can go out with somebody a few times and think they are amazing and that we might have found the one. Then they pick us up in a bad outfit for a date, and our danger signals are going off as if this warrants this type of response. It truly can be something as silly or superficial as that to flip the switch and decide our potential dream man is history.
Long story short, all or nothing thinking is beneficial for many kind of addict but maybe not so much for the average Joe or Jen. In terms of socializing and politics, it appears to lead to toward division and intolerance. Even though our brain has the best intentions, it tells us to run and hide at the first sign of danger but is a little confused as to what real danger is these days. This is important to be aware of so we can supervise our brains when we notice that all or nothing thinking has been triggered. Join me in The Brain BS Podcast to discuss this further!