Dichotomous, or "All or Nothing" thinking refers to the tendency to evaluate one's personal qualities in extreme, black-or-white categories.

For example, a salesperson might say, "I failed to close that sale, so therefore I'm no good at sales", or a 'straight A' student who get's a 'B' in an exam might conclude, "I'm a total failure".

Dichotomous thinking forms the basis of perfectionism and causes one to fear any mistake or imperfection because it can lead to seeing oneself as a complete 'loser', opening oneself up to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.

Yet, this way of evaluating things is unrealistic, as life is rarely completely one way or the other. As David Burns says,

"Absolutes do not exist in this universe. If you try to force your experiences into absolute categories, you will be constantly depressed because your perceptions will not conform to reality. You will set yourself up for discrediting yourself endlessly because whatever you do will never measure up to your exaggerated expectations"


Techniques for 'un-distortion'

Robert Leahy has suggested the following techniques for challenging Dichotmous thinking:

  1. Rate the degree of your belief and identity and rate your emotions
  2. Identify exactly what you predict about your own (or another person's) behaviour
  3. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis
    a. Do you think that viewing yourself in all-or-nothing terms you will motivate you?
    b. Do you think that dichotomous thinking is being realistic?
    c. How would your thinking, behaviour, and feelings change if you were less dichotomous?
  4. Examine evidence for and against your dichotomous thinking. Are there exceptions to your all-or-nothing thinking?
  5. What is the quality of the evidence that supports your belief that things are ''all-or-nothing"?
  6. What cognitive distortions are you using to support your belief? Are you discounting positives, using negative filters, labelling?
  7. How could you prove that your thought is wrong? Is it testable?
  8. What if you looked at things along a continuum from 0% to 100%. Fil in each 10-point increment with a behaviour.
  9. What are some behaviours that are worse, better, or the same as this behaviour?
  10. Are there situations or times when this is not happening? How would you describe these situations or times?
  11. Would everyone see it this way? Why not?
  12. Keep track of the positives (or the other person's positives) every day for a week. What does this record tell you?
  13. Every time you or someone else does a positive, praise yourself or the person. Will this praise increase or decrease the positive behaviour?