“All or nothing” thinking: my journey with polarization

Polarization. It’s that “all or nothing thinking”. It’s that ‘black or white’ thinking. It’s that tunnel thinking that assumes we operate in a world with no real-life complexities, so it’s “either or” and no room for what could be in between. It’s that “you’ve missed several classes in a semester so you may as well give up on this whole semester” kind of thinking. It’s close companions include catastrophizing, where one mistake or one misstep means total destruction. An example of catastrophizing is how Kenyans generally treat KCPE and KCSE results: If you do not get certain grades, you are a failure for life. If you do not go to a certain school, you are doomed.

As I write this I am in shock. I had a therapy session yesterday, and from it my therapist advised me to check out cognitive distortions. These are negative patterns of thinking we have adopted, that are not based on facts. They could be based on opinions, lies, things we commonly hear, but they are not true. Unfortunately, these thought patterns are very common. As such, many of us have at least one or many cognitive distortions. These thoughts inform how we make decisions, view situations, view ourselves, view others, judge the world, believing the thoughts as our own.

As I said, as I write this I am in shock, the good kind though. This is because as I started my reading on cognitive distortions, even before I could get past the second one, I could already see some of it in myself. So far, I have only read on filtering and polarization, catastrophizing I know from a Lapid Leaders Africa class on Resilience.

So why am I in shock you may be wondering? As I was reading on polarization, I decided to journal on moments I have had that ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, and these moments are many. For me, they spun from as early as when I was in class 4 (9 years old). My very first all-or-nothing moment was when for some reason I backed out from signing up for the school music group, yet this is all I had dreamed of doing since class 2(7 years old). The music group was so cool (to me) because it involved singing and dancing to Kikuyu folk songs, dressed in the most colourful costumes, going for music festivals and dancing before judges, while competing with the ‘it’ schools, and still this team would win! As I look back now, I know I was fascinated by how far in the competitions the team would always go considering the competition, but at the heart of it I just wanted to be dancing and singing.

So why didn’t I sign up for the music festivals team when I got the chance? I can picture the moment I stood outside the auditions hall, I can still hear the team singing and playing these gourd-like instruments and there’s such life inside. I am 9, in a green school uniform with yellow collars and black shoes. I am aware I just became position 1 for the very first time in my life in that school. I am intelligent and well-spoken, all my teachers love me, I can sing

(But I thought everyone could sing, I was still waiting to “discover my talents”), and I have been wanting to be in this team for so long.

However, when it came down to it, I just didn’t step into the hall. I remember feeling fear that I would not qualify, or I would look stupid or just some fear that held me back. As I walked away from that hall, I felt something drop somewhere in my belly, and somehow, I felt this perpetuity to the feeling, like I would always remember how that kind of giving up felt. I felt so bad each time I saw the team rehearsing, but somehow, I just couldn’t give up the fear and just ask to be added to the team. This thing that dropped in my belly, started accusing me of being a coward each music festival season. I believed it. My adolescence had already kicked in, and this accusatory voice had gotten louder and harsher. Sadly, I had no way of identifying that this voice was not me; I did not know it was my inner critic who is separate from me. This voice got bolder with age, spreading to other areas in my life. I would wonder why I was so harsh against myself yet all I wanted was to try new things, I would even cry wondering what was wrong with me. I never signed up for the music team my entire stay in that school (3 more years). I have backed out of trying so many things I have wanted to, with this voice always demoralising me before I start things. Then when I wouldn’t sign up for something at the beginning, this voice would say I stood no chance in that particular thing, then catastrophize by saying that means I’m doomed to fail. This small incident domino-started this long and unhealthy relationship I’ve had with “all or nothing” thinking, coupled with fear led avoidance. I’m definitely not caught up in it’s snares as much as I was in the past, but as my therapist says that’s good enough because the aim is progress not perfection.

That is not why I am in shock though. I am in shock because as I was journaling about my polarization moments, I started making this list of everything I now know I am, versus the ‘flaws’ my inner critic is so loud about, and there was my shock! I have pages and pages and pages of who I am, what I am, what I am good at, my character, what I am doing well, and just about four sentences of the things my inner critic has been hanging over my head!

When it is said that cognitive distortions are based on half truths and not facts; that’s an understatement. How is it that this inner critic has been having so much airtime in my head, making my life really miserable some days (and for years during my puberty and early twenties), only for me to realise it only has a few ‘pick-up lines’, against the evidence of who I truly am going for pages and pages?!!!

My final thoughts: What half truths have been giving you sleepless nights? Making your life hell in your own head? Could you be living in misery in your own head because you have believed your inner critic is you, and therefore adopted its flawed patterns of thinking such as polarization and catastrophizing? Could you be getting tortured by a voice in your head with only a few pick-up lines?

I pray you find your good shock moment. Maybe start by writing what your critic says, then proceed to what you also know about yourself… I’d be so happy to share good shock moments with as many people as possible.

Love, Ris.



I writing about re-finding ourselves, and everything in between; trauma, rejection, acceptance, healing, mental health

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Risper Wanja Njagi

I writing about re-finding ourselves, and everything in between; trauma, rejection, acceptance, healing, mental health