189: How to Crush Negative Thoughts: All-or-Nothing Thinking

This is the second in a series of podcasts by David and Rhonda focusing on the best techniques to crush each of the ten cognitive distortions I first published in my book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Today, we focus on All-or-Nothing Thinking. that’s where you look at the world in black-or-white categories, as if shades of gray do not exist. For example, if you’re not a complete success you may tell yourself that you’re a complete failure.

All-or-Nothing Thinking is one of the most common cognitive distortions, and it causes or contributes to many common forms of emotional distress, including:

  • perfectionism
  • depression
  • Social anxiety–
    • performance anxiety
    • public speaking anxiety
    • shyness
  • hopelessness and suicidal urges
  • anger, relationship conflicts, and violent urges
  • habits and addictions
  • and more

However, this distortion can be also be helpful to you, and may reflect some of your core values. For example, your perfectionism

  • shows that you have high standards, and won’t settle for second-best
  • may motivate you to work hard and do excellent work
  • prevents you from glossing over your failures and mistakes
  • intensifies your emotional life, which may feel like a glorious roller coaster ride, with intense ups (when you do well) and equally intense downs (when you fall short.)

So, before you can challenge a negative thought with this, or any distortion, you’ll have to decide why in the world you’d want to do that, given all the benefits of your negative thoughts and feelings.

One of the possible down sides of All-or-Nothing Thinking is that it simply does not map onto reality. There is little in the universe that is 100% or 0%. Most of the time, or even all of the time, we’re somewhere between 0% and !00%. For example, this podcast is not incredibly fantastic, or absolutely horrible. It is somewhere in-between, and will hopefully be of some value to you. While it clearly won’t solve ALL of your problems, it may be a useful step forward.

We describe a number of example of All-or-Nothing Thinking, including a physician who was trying to diet and ended up binging on a half gallon of ice cream, and a suicidal young woman with incredibly severe depression who was involved in self-mutilation.

There are many ways of crushing the negative thoughts that contain All-or-Nothing Thinking, including Thinking in Shades of Gray. Although that might sound rather drab in comparison to the drama of All-or-Nothing Thinking, you may discover that the world becomes far more colorful when you learn to think in shades of gray!

In the next podcast in this series, David and Rhonda will discuss the TEAM-CBT techniques that can especially helpful for the next distortion, Overgeneralization. David argues that Overgeneralization is arguably the cause of all depression and much anxiety, and that the first person to recognize and solve this dilemma was the Buddha, 2500 years ago. More on that topic next week!

David D. Burns, MD / Rhonda Barovsky, PsyD


You can reach Dr. Burns at Dr. Rhonda Barovsky practices in Walnut Creek, California, and specializes in TEAM-CBT for depression, anxiety, and relationship problems. She can be reached at

Today’s featured photo is courtesy of Nancy Mueller–

If you like our jingle music and would like to support the composer Brett Van Donsel, you may download it here.

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This is the cover of my new book, Feeling Great. It will be released in September of 2020, but you will soon be able to pre-order it on Amazon, possibly by the time you read this! 

Need Training or CE Credits?

Check Out these Awesome Upcoming Workshops!

The Cognitive Distortion Starter Kit:
How to Crush Negative Thoughts

With Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt

May 17, 2020 | 7 CE hours. $135 (online only)

TEAM-CBT includes more than 100 powerful techniques to change the distorted thoughts that trigger negative emotions. But what techniques should I select for my patient who feels depressed, anxious, or angry?

As you know, in my book, Feeling Good, I listed the ten most common cognitive distortions, like All-or-Nothing Thinking, Should Statements, Emotional Reasoning, and more, and you probably use that list all the time in your clinical work. But do you know which techniques work the best for each distortion?

Come to this workshop and find out! You’ll learn with tons of cool techniques you can use every day to boost your clinical effectiveness.

This workshop will be live-streamed (and in person in Palo Alto, CA) so you can join from anywhere in the world! There will be many expert online helpers to assist you with the small-group exercises.

Move rapidly if you want to come. We are already SOLD OUT in person, but there are still slots available online.

There will be many helpers from the Feeling Good Institute to assist and guide you in the small group exercises in person and online as well.  Our last workshop on resistance in February was our most highly rated ever! We hope to make this a terrific and fun learning experience for you, too!

Learn More & Register

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2-Day Clinical Master Class

Rapid Recovery from Anxiety Disorders–
GAD, Phobias, Panic Attacks, Social Anxiety,
OCD, PTSD and Health Anxiety

by David D. Burns, MD

June 4 – 5, 2020, Seattle, Washington

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The All-New Annual South San Francisco Intensive!

Enhanced Empathy Training

August 10 – 13, 2020

It’s Going to Be Awesome!

Videos, Live Demonstrations

Small Group Practice with

Personal Feedback and Mentoring,

and Chances for Personal Work and Healing

During this four-day intensive workshop you will learn:

  • How to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with challenging, difficult clients.
  • How to deal skillfully with people who refuse to open up and talk to you; won’t listen; are relentlessly critical, narcissistic or controlling; always have to be right; use, abuse, or exploit you; complain endlessly; are hostile, threatening or violent; as well as clients who are overwhelmed, hopeless and suicidal.
  • How to develop more loving relationships with the people you care about—as well as the ones you don’t.
  • Powerful new techniques to help clients who are struggling with conflicts with loved ones, friends, or colleagues.
  • How to deal with the inner chatter and powerful feelings that make it so difficult to deal with conflict when you feel angry or hurt.
  • How to identify and modify the self-defeating beliefs that make us vulnerable to conflicts with others.
  • How to identify and melt away the intense outcome and process resistance that make the treatment of relationship problems so challenging.

Learn More and Register

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Watch for the Awesome

December Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference

Anaheim, December 9 – 13, 2020

Sponsored by the Erikson Institute

It is always spectacular and I’ll be presenting, too!

Details TBA