If you are looking for a surefire way to beat up on yourself, I can’t recommend a better one than all-or-nothing thinking. The best way to define what that means is through a couple of examples:
“I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that dessert. I’m never going to get my diet on track. This is terrible. (And I may as well have another one since I’ve blown my diet.)”
“I thought he was going to call me to get together, but it looks like he’s not going to. Now my weekend is ruined.”
“I set a goal of getting exercise three times a week. The week is over and I haven’t exercised once. Now I feel awful. Why bother to try?”
“We always check in with each other at least twice a day. It’s perfect for me. In fact it’s the only thing that I can count on in my life.”
As you read through these examples of all-or-nothing thinking, did any words jump out at you? Here are a few hints: never, ruined, awful, perfect, always, and only. What these words have in common is that they don’t leave a lot of room for alternate ways of viewing a situation. Instead, they are ways of saying that a situation has to be one way or the other, all or nothing, one extreme or the other.
If you find yourself using words like these when things don’t go the way you expected them to, you may be caught up in all-or-nothing thinking.
All-or-nothing thinking means that your self-talk is focused on extremes. If it’s not this way, then it must be that way. If it doesn’t look like this, then it has to be that. It is self-talk that doesn’t allow for looking at a situation from different perspectives. It is focused on the black and white at each end of the spectrum but prevents you from seeing the shades of gray that might fall in between.
Now, if you are standing in the middle of the street and a car is coming toward you, all-or-nothing thinking is probably the best response. Don’t think twice – get out of the way. But in day-to-day life, all-or-nothing thinking pretty much works against you.
Think about it this way. Hand-in-hand with all-or-nothing thinking is telling yourself that you have to be perfect, the first time, and every time. That life has to be one way and can’t be any other way. And that other people need to be a certain way, too. That’s not a recipe for failure, but it’s a recipe to feel like you failed, and that others have, when in reality that’s not the case. Keep in mind that your perception can feel a whole like reality, even if it’s not. Who wants to live that way?
If you have found yourself caught up in all-or-nothing thinking, you probably already know the consequences. Feeling like a failure. Feeling hopeless. Turning a tiny setback into something much bigger. Feeling that other people are always going to disappoint you.
And then what? All-or-nothing thinking can lead to a defeatist attitude, and emotions like anxiety and depression. Feeling panic. Giving up on your self-care. Assuming you can’t make improvements. Stress that can negatively impact your health.
It’s only human to indulge in some all-or-nothing thinking from time to time. But it’s also possible to do something about it.
First, recognize when you are caught up in all-or-nothing thinking. Take a look at your self-talk. If you hear any of those all-or-nothing words – ruined, impossible, always, never – sound the alarm that you have wandered into the land of extremes.
Consider the shades of gray. Sure, it’s not what I wanted or expected. Or, it looks like what’s happening is just what I was afraid would happen. But take a step back and look at the situation through another lens. Ask yourself: What are other ways to look at this situation? One slip-up on your diet doesn’t have to mean that you are doomed to poor eating. Not receiving the phone call you had wanted doesn’t mean that you can’t find something else to do over the weekend. Missing a week of exercise doesn’t mean that you can’t exercise today. And deciding that something is perfect doesn’t meant that life could still be good if there was a variation in the routine.
In other words, ask yourself: What’s the middle ground here?
Argue with yourself. Once you move your attention to the shades of gray, have a little argument with yourself. Surround that all-or-nothing voice with alternate voices. Use some tough love, use a little humor, use lots of compassion. The idea here is to talk yourself out of the extreme and into a perspective that promotes your self-care and optimistic outlook. Don’t let that all-or-nothing voice off the hook!
Turn your self-talk around. Once you have spent some time focused on the gray area and come up with an alternate perspective, try some new self-talk. Here are some examples:
I can enjoy something that’s not perfect.
I can love someone for their good qualities and for what sometimes annoys me about them.
I can live with variations in routine even though I didn’t choose them.
I can fall off my (diet, exercise) horse but pick myself up, dust myself off, get back on that horse, and get going again.
If I make a mistake, that doesn’t mean I am a failure. The same goes for other people.
Overcoming your all-or-nothing thinking is a process. After all, it’s been hardwired into all of you through years and years of practice. But it’s possible to change it if you are willing to do some work while also being patient with yourself. So don’t get into an all-or-nothing mindset about your all-or-nothing thinking. Change requires retraining your mind to think differently so that you can look at things differently and, as a result, feel differently. Step by step, one day at a time.
Give up the extremes, choose a middle ground, and change the way you feel. Balance is everything!
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