How Religion Can Promote Unhealthy All-or-Nothing Thinking

The older I get, the more aware I become of just how much pain and suffering a specific mindset has caused me over the years. This particular type of thinking goes by many names: all-or-nothing, black-and-white, dichotomous, binary, dualistic, etc, and it is actually a type of cognitive distortion (error in the process of thinking that can lead to various fears, anxieties, and resentments). Examples of all-or-nothing thinking include: "I must do this perfectly or it's not even worth trying" or "I didn't exercise today so I'm a failure". Viewing the world in terms of black and white can be very tempting because it provides simplicity and certainty, but it is actually a very inflexible, unhelpful, and unrealistic way of looking at life, people, and ourselves. 

My tendency towards this type of thinking was fueled by the fundamentalist religion I was raised in. From birth, I was indoctrinated with Biblical dichotomies such as Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong, Saints vs. Sinners, Us vs. Them, Heaven vs. Hell, etc. My personality took to thinking in terms of categories quite well. The organization that binary thinking provides brought me clarity and comfort. I was happy to think in black and white because that allowed me to turn off my brain and avoid grappling with things like uncertainty, critical thinking, or navigating "the grey area". 

But real life isn't black and white. It's complex, messy, and a million shades of grey. As I mentioned in my blog post last month, the process of losing my faith was long and slow and marked by many doubt-causing events over time. One of the early building blocks to fall for me was the realization that the Bible's dualistic way of viewing humans (Saints vs. Sinners, Us vs. Them) didn't make sense. My Christian community had painted non-believers to be unfulfilled, purposeless, angry, hopeless, evil, wicked, etc. Though I grew up quite sheltered, I occasionally had opportunities to meet secular people and found an unsettlingly large amount of them to be kind, good-hearted, fulfilled, and seemingly thriving! A red flag went up. 

A similar pillar of my belief system came crashing down years later when the illogical extremes of Heaven and Hell dawned on me. My life experience had shown me that people aren't either: 100% "good" or 100% "bad". I couldn't make sense of the notion that at the end of their lives people either: A) deserved to live in eternal bliss or B) deserved to burn in eternal conscious torment, with no options in between! (Today I don't view humans as either "good" or "bad", but at that time I saw them as existing on some sort of spectrum with "very good" at one end and "very bad" on the other, with most people existing somewhere in the middle ("the grey area"). Why did the middle people deserve the extreme eternities?) Another red flag went up. 

This rigid, all-or-nothing thinking dominated my outlook for many years, but through therapy, I came to realize that this way of viewing the world (and myself) was ultimately causing me more harm than good. It had manifested in my life in countless ways, including low self-esteem, perfectionism, disordered eating, and procrastination. Over time therapy has helped me slowly shift my mindset to more "living in the grey", and I'm so grateful for the balance, maturity, and nuance that this new paradigm has brought to my perspective.

If you struggle with binary thinking and are looking for a therapist to help you heal from it, consider looking for a clinician who offers Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Therapists trained in this modality can help you learn to overcome this mindset with effective techniques such as cognitive reframing and challenging negative thoughts. Dare to come dip your toe in "the grey area"! The water's just fine.