Challenging all or nothing thinking

Padre Willis

Padre Willis

Many of us at times struggle with black vs white or all or nothing thinking. What kind of thinking is this? The person who thinks like this is likely to use the terms always, never, forever. They see a single action or a lone lack of action as a totality. For instance when a certain husband might forget to put the toilet seat down, his wife might say to him, “you never leave the toilet ready for someone else to use.” Or the guy in Cold Lake whose girlfriend just broke up with him and says as he sighs to his friend, “I’ll be single forever!”

It is quite natural and normal for us to feel negative when faced with an adverse situation, but dwelling in a continual state of all or nothing thinking over time actually changes our sense of reality. Just because we make a mistake does not mean that we’re stupid and we’ll never get it right. If we’ve sinned and done wrong we need not be lost forever but can be forgiven and do right in the future.

A relief for all or nothing thinking can be found in some Jewish wisdom literature. Sirach 20:3 states, “And the one who admits his fault will be kept from failure.” Rejecting negative all or nothing thinking does not mean that we replace it with unrealistic exaggeratedly positive thinking. Instead we consider the truth. The truth is that you and I are at fault
from time to time. When we can admit that we failed, made a mistake, or did wrong we can
also ensure a better future. Sirach reminds us that one action does not define us and that when we
decide to correct our mistakes, right our wrongs, and improve on our failures it turns something
valuable out of the negative in our lives. Sirach 20:9 reminds us that “There may be good fortune for a person in adversity, and a windfall may result in a loss.” It is good for us to move forward in hope trusting in a better day and for us to count our blessings. We never get good at anything without messing up along the way.

So how can we challenge all or nothing thinking? Some memorization, recitation and if need be, it helps for me, some preaching to ourselves. Commit these words to memory: And the one who admits his fault will be kept from failure and say them to yourself when you need to hear good news.