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All-or-Nothing Thinking and THE UNSINKABLE GRETA JAMES by Jennifer E. Smith

Greta James is a rock star in despair. She recently lost her mother, provoking a downward spiral culminating in a disastrous live performance and hiatus from touring. Now, Greta is convinced that her music career is over if her next concert is anything less than perfect.

Greta’s engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, a distorted pattern of automatic thoughts that leaves no room for balance. Her thoughts are “all good,” or “all bad,” never “mostly ok but with some moments of awesome and some moments of ick.”

All-or-nothing thinking is problematic because it’s impossible to be perfect, so when imperfection inevitably occurs, it appears to taint everything. This leads to low self-esteem and frustration.

Like with all cognitive distortions, we are trying to move from:

Situation -> Automatic Thoughts -> Emotion -> Response


Situation -> Automatic Thought -> Emotion -> Analysis of Automatic Thought -> New Emotion -> Adaptive Response

Tips for analyzing and challenging all-or-nothing automatic thoughts:

  • Look for shades of gray. Train yourself to appreciate a range that includes sufficient, adequate, acceptable, tolerable, satisfactory…anything between awful and flawless.

  • Look for exceptions. If you see things as always or never, attempt to notice usually, occasionally, every once in a while, and sometimes.

  • Set hittable targets. Instead of seeking perfection, set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound) goals.

Let’s apply the all-or-nothing theories to Greta…

  • Greta is reminded about her upcoming concert (SITUATION).

  • She immediately thinks that she will likely fail on stage and that this second bad performance will mean her fans will all reject her (Automatic Thoughts).

  • Greta feels overwhelmed and scared (Emotion).

  • Greta avoids rehearsing and communicating with her professional team, leaving her feeling worse about herself and more likely to have a rough show (RESPONSE).

And add in the new skills:

  • Greta sets the goal of practicing four performance songs daily for a half-an-hour each between now and the concert (SMART goals). At the end of each rehearsal, she writes down two things she did well, two things coming along, and two things she needs to work on (SHADES OF GRAY). She watches clips of past concerts when she made mistakes, and the audience didn’t notice (EXCEPTIONS) (ANALYSIS OF AUTOMATIC THOUGHT).

  • Greta feels more comfortable with the upcoming concert since she understands it is not make-or-break for her career (NEW EMOTION).

  • Greta diligently prepares for the challenge (ADAPTIVE RESPONSE).


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