Hello my friend with OCD. I want to ask you about something and see if it applies to you. Do you have all-or-nothing thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking, or thinking in extremes, is prevalent in OCD. I still experience this type of thinking even without OCD looming over my head all the time, and it is a very sneaky, sinister little brain distortion.

For instance, even without compulsions, if I start a new type of workout like running, I immediately cannot enjoy it because I haven’t run a marathon. If I do yoga, I feel like I’m not a real yogi because I’m just trying it out.

With OCD battling you, it’s even worse. All-or-nothing thinking applies to everything and usually results in you beating yourself up without even realizing it, causing a great deal of internal blame and shame. So why do we do this?

There are a couple of reasons. First, us OCDers love to have certainty. Really, OCD is just an unnatural level of not being able to tolerate uncertainty and trying, then, in very peculiar ways to make things certain with our minds.

This leads us to view situations as completely safe or completely dangerous with no middle ground.

It is this type of thinking that gets us stuck in the doom scroll loop in our brains, you know the one where you have to get your compulsion just right to “fix” your thought. For me, this could look like a never-ending series of chanting and walking up and down my stairs to prevent someone from dying. I would think, “Did I get the thought right this time?” “Wait, did I accidentally shake my head, negating the ritual?” I just kept starting over and over again.

This all-or-nothing thinking can cause a significant amount of harm, especially as you recover from OCD. When I was first beginning treatment, I just thought I would stop all compulsions at once, and when that was impossible, I felt like a failure. Then, I would just give up. This kept me stuck for much longer than I should have been and feeling bad about myself. 

In OCD treatment, you need to let go of that type of thinking. You have to improve a little each day. Just a tiny improvement over the previous day is all that is needed. If you resist one compulsion today, resist two tomorrow and count it as a win.

I know, us OCDers have a really hard time with this. But this all-or-nothing thinking can get you stuck in so many areas of your life, and especially mess with your treatment.

If you are seeing a therapist or coach and you find yourself in this pattern, please talk to them about this and work with them to come up with a concrete plan to tackle OCD a little at a time. You can use your phone’s notes app to track it or just a piece of paper. There are even some apps out there for tracking things as well. Ali Greymond, one of my favorite YouTubers/podcasters in the OCD space, even has an app just for OCD.

If you are like me, you have an OCD brain that bullies you and makes you feel horrible about yourself. You may even be a successful person in real life, but your OCD tells you otherwise. Trust me, this all-or-nothing thinking pattern will only make recovery worse and make you feel worse.

Instead, try to reframe your treatment and celebrate the little wins each day. Also, if you have a setback one day, don’t dwell on it. You can work on it again the next day. Think about it like this… if you get only 1% better each day, you could be 100% better in a few months. It really is possible to get out of OCD and live a life of your values and not a life that is a slave to the OCD monster.