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  • Steven Sutton, LCSW

How to Recognize if You are Stuck in "All or Nothing" Thinking Patterns


A lot of people tend to think in concrete terms. There can be strength in being clear and solid on what you think and how you see things. This type of thinking usually take the form of opposite ends of a spectrum, such as:

  • Good or bad

  • Right or wrong

  • Success or failure

  • Useful or useless

I call this sort of thinking binary thinking — meaning there are only two options. Binary thinking is commonly referenced in cognitive therapy and is often referred to as polarized or “all or nothing” thinking. It tends to be the type of thinking where you stay “stuck” and talk yourself into a belief that there’s nothing you can do about your situation. Part of binary thinking is taking on a victim role. People who use this type of thinking often have a low tolerance for emotional risk. They want to simplify the world around them and have a straight-forward way of thinking about why they’re not having the experiences they want.

Here’s an example:

I recently spoke with a guy who asked his wife for something that was important to him and she didn’t have much of a response. The guy was talking about what he wanted and it wasn’t easy for him. Talking to his wife about what he wants was a new habit he was working on. She was busy and distracted; she knew it was something he wanted but she didn’t take the time to turn towards him in the moment, which left him with the impression that she wasn’t interested in what he asked for. After the conversation he told himself, “Well I can just accept that she doesn’t want it or I can make a big stink and start a fight. Starting an argument doesn’t seem like that’s a good idea so I guess that’s just the way it is and will be.”

To him there were only two ways of thinking about what had happened in that conversation. It’s remarkable how often I hear people describe their opinions to themselves this way. I’ve come to believe that - binary thinking - is a way of rationalizing inaction.

Being a binary thinker is not a choice you make in the moment, it’s the result of being emotionally blocked in response to previous experiences. While it’s true that you don’t choose to have binary thinking emerge in your thoughts, you can choose how you want to behave once you learn to recognize it. The way out of this pattern is to notice that you have a choice point in the process — that you’re not subject to what occurs in your thoughts and you don’t have to identify with it. If this happens to you, choose to intentionally consider alternatives to the two concrete options.


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