Replace an All-or-Nothing Mindset with Balanced Thinking

 ADHD Weekly, June 6, 2024

Have you ever ended a relationship with a friend over a minor disagreement? Have you walked into a room full of people you’ve never met and, when no one talks to you, assumed they dislike you?
This all-or-nothing thinking, often referred to as black-and-white thinking, is common for children and adults who have ADHD. This is especially true for perfectionists.

Getting stuck in this mindset may cause you to avoid tasks and relationship problems. Becoming aware of when you are stuck in black-and-white thinking and then taking a moment to look at things from another’s point of view can help you shift to a more flexible mindset.

Rigid thinking

Why do some people with ADHD get stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to social situations or tasks?

“Black-and-white thinking patterns can arise from sensory issues, overstimulation, feeling bombarded, stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which can lead people to have a greater intolerance for uncertainty,” writes Caroline Maguire, MEd, ACCG, PCC, in the June 2024 issue of Attention magazine, “How to Shift Black and White Thinking,” currently available to CHADD members. The founder of the Fundamentals of ADHD Coaching for Families training program at the ADD Coach Academy, Maguire is the author of Why Will No One Play with Me.

Black-and-white thinking may help a person feel more in control, especially in chaotic situations. Thinking in absolutes is not a true reading of a situation, she says, but a type of distorted view that can cause relationship problems. No relationship is perfect all the time; sometimes disagreements occur, and they often are not worth ending a relationship over. But with an all-or-nothing viewpoint, the person expects that a relationship must be perfect all the time, which is not realistic.

All-or-nothing thinking can also affect the ability to get projects or tasks done, stick to things like a healthier diet, or keep a mindfulness practice. Dani Donovan, ADHD artist, TikTok creator, and author of the Anti-Planner: How to Get Stuff Done When You Don’t Feel Like It, shares her experience with black-and-white thinking with her audiences.

“Anything less than perfect feels like a total failure,” she says. “Breaking even one day of a streak immediately results in falling off the wagon. I am 100% or 0%. I have a hard time accepting anything in between.”

Like many adults with ADHD who struggle to complete tasks, Donovan says her black-and-white thinking frequently results in unfinished projects, half-read books, and abandoned exercise plans.

Strategies for change

How can you change an all-or-nothing mindset? The first step is to be aware of your internal dialogue. Pay attention to what words your inner voice uses, such as, always, never, all, or none, says Maguire. Notice when your inner voice uses these words and look for clues that you may be making a situation bigger than it is.

Robin Brannan, LCMFT, is a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist and the director of Better Together Family Therapy in Kensington, Maryland. Once you are aware of your inner voice, she says, try using “balanced or both/and thinking.”

“This means replacing language like ‘always’ and ‘never’ with more specific, more accurate statements,” Brannan writes. When you catch yourself thinking only in black or white, use balanced statements that include both or and. For example, if you normally think about other people in a situation and say to yourself, “They hate me,” practice thinking, instead, “They might not like what I did,” or “They might be okay with it.”

This kind of reframing helps you focus on the reality of the situation instead of on assumptions.

When you’re aware of your negative self-talk, try focusing on the positives instead. Thinking about your good qualities, like whether you are a good employee or friend or whether you are witty or kind, can help you change your negative thought patterns. When you are leaning toward a negative view of a situation, challenge yourself to look for the positives. Sometimes this may be hard to do if you are feeling a lot of emotion, but like any skill, with practice you can become better at it.

Another useful strategy, Maguire suggests, is to test your view of a situation by looking for facts. For example, if a friend didn’t text you back, and you think they must be upset with you, ask yourself, What facts prove this is true? Consider other possibilities—they may be having dinner out with their family or watching a movie.

Approaching the situation from a different angle by searching for facts can help you see the bigger picture of what may be going on. When you haven’t started or finished a project or an important task, check in on your self-talk, especially if your first response is to think you are a failure. Instead, tell yourself, “Well I didn’t complete the project, but I did complete steps one through four. Next time I can work toward completing step five.”

Ask yourself if what you are feeling is based on an emotion or on a fact. Sometimes in the moment we take feelings to be facts, says Maguire.

“By determining what part is story and what part is fact, you can separate the heaviness of a ‘factual event’ from feelings, giving you time to sort through the real details with greater truth,” she writes.

It’s okay to not be perfect

It’s not easy to change your mindset and you won’t always be successful. That’s okay. Give yourself time to practice these strategies and remember that not everyone is perfect all the time.

“The world is not all black and white; there are many shades of gray,” says Maguire. “And when you examine your ‘facts,’ a simple shift to add in the phrase ‘yes, and…’ can open your mind up to other truths that coexist with your negative thoughts.”

Further Reading:

Join the discussion: How do you change your thinking patterns?