Are you hard on yourself? Is it all or nothing thinking for you?
I’ve always been like that and chances are you’ve always been like that too.
- I want to be the best, to be perfect
- to be flawless
- to never make a mistake.
I have to be great at everything that I do. If I’m not, one of three things happens.
- I won’t do it or never get started
- get obsessive-compulsive and shut down all other areas of my life until this one thing is perfect
- beat me up about not being perfect.
Most of the time it’s number two.
Over the last few years, I’ve progressively become better at dealing with all-or-nothing thinking that’s manifested in my pursuit for perfection. I’m not quite there yet. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m hoping what’s written below will be some benefit to you.
If you struggling with all or nothing thinking in nutrition, exercise, work, relationships, or personal fiance. This article is for you.
WHAT IS ALL OR NOTHING THINKING?
In psychology, all-or-nothing thinking is known as splitting. Splitting is the inability to have both positive and negative views of yourself or others. It also involves thinking in extremes. Either everything is perfect or everything is a mess. All or nothing thinking can also be referred to as black and white thinking. No grey area.
All or nothing thinking is rooted in an addiction to perfectionism. Your self-worth ends up being tied to whatever it is you want to accomplish, be, or do. You end up judging yourself based on how quickly, how accurately, and how precise you can be. Many believe that others may judge them on this as well.
David Sack, a board-certified addiction psychiatry specialist says that perfectionism can be at the root of both great struggle and great success depending on how you cope with it.
In an article that he published on Psychcentral, he ties perfectionism and addiction in the following ways.
Perfectionists with an all-or-nothing mentality also often compare themselves with others and how they’re doing. I’ve mentioned before that trying to keep up with the Joneses is the fastest way to anxiety and stress. Staying away from the trap of validation is vital for your sanity.
Even if life is going amazingly, a perfectionist is never happy. For you, being perfect in all areas of life might not be necessary. Maybe, it’s just one specific role that you play that has to be perfect.
I used to have to eat perfectly but having a perfectly clean room didn’t matter much to me. I also have to be the perfect significant other but wearing the perfect outfit when I go out doesn’t mean a lot.
For you it may mean:
- Being the perfect husband or wife
- Being the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend
- Having the perfect job
- Making the perfect amount of money
What ends up happening is all of your energy gets focused on the pursuit of perfection in one small area of your life. Everything else is going great but one hiccup and you lose your shit.
HOW ALL OR NOTHING THINKING CAN AFFECT YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS
All or nothing thinking involves thinking in absolutes. We’ll use terms like good or bad. Never or ever. Success or failure. If you struggle with anxiety or depression this may mean only seeing the negative side of things. If you struggle with your diet this may mean you’re either “eating clean” or you’re not.
When we think like this it keeps us from seeing alternative solutions to challenges. It limits us from seeing any possible shades of grey. We won’t recognize small wins like swapping a coke with water because we obsess about the burger we ate instead of the salad. Honoring our wins will keep us motivated and consistent. Find those greys.
OTHER WAYS ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING MAY SHOW UP IN YOUR LIFE
Jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, and passing judgments based on insufficient experience and evidence. You slip up one time on your diet, therefore you don’t have enough willpower to stay with it so why bother.
FILTER OUT POSITIVE THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
You turned in a project at work and received positive feedback. Except for one person and it is all you can think about. Therefore, you should have done better.
Your obsessed with the worst-case scenario. Even though it is highly unlikely. This can increase anxiety and keep you from taking action.
Very similar to all or nothing thinking. Polarized thinking places people or things into either/or categories. Allowing for no grey areas despite the complexity of people, situations, and things.
YOU ASSOCIATE YOUR FEELINGS WITH THE TRUTH
I’m currently participating in a coaching course with Martha Beck and I’ve learned that our circumstances or facts drive our thoughts. Our thoughts drive our feelings, and our feelings drive our behavior.
Circumstances —> Thoughts —> Feelings —> Behaviors
Circumstances: Situations where you have little to no control over at that moment. An example would be you just got paid and your check is only $200. You get to a party and the only food available is chips and dip.
Thoughts: The way you interpret your circumstances and the meaning you give to them. My check is only $200, therefore I’m going to be broke. There are only chips and dip at this party so there is no way to be healthy.
Feelings: You received your check for $200 and now you’re mad, upset, or nervous. You only see chips and dip and are anxious and confused.
Behaviors: You get to the party, see the chips and dip, are confused about how to stay healthy and chow down a couple of handfuls and wash it down with beer (there was nothing else you could do).
We often have little control over our circumstances. But we do have the ability to change our feelings and behaviors by reframing our thoughts. A way to do this is by coaching yourself. Let’s use the party example.
You get to the party and only see chips, dip, and beer. You think there is no way you’ll be able to stick to your nutrition plan. There are no options here for you.
You’re anxious about your ability to stick to your nutrition plan and confused about what you can do. You say forget it. There’s nothing I can do so I might as well indulge.
If you continue to use all-or-nothing self-criticism runs ramped. You may even feel like you’ve let others down. Sometimes I feel like I’ve let the world down when I screw up.
All or nothing thought and perfectionism has been linked to:
- Anxiety (1)
- Eating disorders (2) (3)
- Decreased productivity
- Depression (4)
- Migraines (5)
- Troubled relationships
For you, it may lead to never being able to finish something because it’s never quite perfect. For others, it may keep you from actually starting something because you’ve never quite found the perfect means, time, place, or method to start.
IN THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
One of my favorite authors is Dr. Tal Ben-Sharar. I recently started flipping through a book of his titled “Pursuit Of Perfect.”
In it, he discusses the difference between perfectionism and optimalism. The main difference between the two is how you choose to deal with reality when events occur in your life.
The good Dr. breaks it down like this. You’re either maladaptive or adaptive.
You’re never ever satisfied. You either dismiss imperfections or dwell on them. Always in fear of failure (or success and having to keep it up), are full of self-doubt, and have a difficult time being completely happy. You see mistakes as unacceptable and associate them with who they are as a person. You reject the constraints of reality.
You’re focused on progress and improving. Perfection isn’t something that you desire, consistent improvement is. You view mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. You embrace the constraints of reality.
Essentially, perfection is unattainable and those that are maladaptive reject this thought and let it beat them down while those that are adaptive accept it and appreciate the challenge of making progress.
HOW TO STOP ALL OR NOTHING THINKING AND EMBRACE IMPERFECTION
The most important step is to stop telling yourself you’re an all or nothing thinker. Confirmation bias is strong.
After that, here’s how you can avoid all-or-nothing thinking and embrace life’s hiccups whether big or small.
PRACTICE GETTING MESSY. PRACTICE GETTING STARTED
There will never be the perfect time to get started learning something new, to be in a relationship, to start exercising, to begin eating better, to start pursuing another career. You’ll never feel less busy, have more time. When you get started you will mess up and mess up often.
When you make a mistake ask yourself what went wrong and establish a plan for how you can handle the situation better next time. So you got to the party and there were no healthy options? Maybe bring something with you next time, eat before you go, or practice intermittent fasting.
There is no past, no future, just today. What will you do NOW? Get started, keep moving, and avoid the stuckiness.
AVOID SUPERHERO SYNDROME
If we’re superhuman we can change anything and everything all at once. Unfortunately, we’re not. If you’re trying to make changes in your life start small and if that doesn’t work start smaller… And if that doesn’t work start smaller than that.
If you’re not working out you don’t need to hit the gym like a bat outta hell and spend 90 minutes punishing yourself. Commit to waking up every day and performing a 10-minute workout.
If you’re currently drinking 3 sodas per day and are looking to quit try cutting back to 2. Once you’ve consistently nailed it go to 1. Before you know it… NONE.
Momentum is a powerful thing. Shrink the change you seek as much as you need to accomplish it on a consistent basis. Build upon that.
AVOID AH FUCK IT SYNDROME
As humans, one of the most important things you can master when trying to do anything well is understanding we respond to our thoughts, feelings, and reality and not necessarily ‘reality.” The way you interpret events in your life will decide how you respond to them.
If you constantly view events and experiences in a negative light you will respond to them in a negative way. If you’ve been on your nutrition game for two weeks solid and out of nowhere ate a couple of cookies and view it as the end of the world. You’ll beat yourself up about it. Most likely adopting an “Ah F*ck It!” attitude, eating some more junk, and deciding to start from scratch on Monday.
Instead, take negative thoughts and spin them into a positive language. Often what happens in instances like this (and I know cause I’ve done it too) is you start to think to yourself.
- I’m the worst
- I have no discipline
- I lack motivation
- I’ll never be able to do this
Your mind and body are one. If you keep telling yourself these things your body responds accordingly. Change your thoughts and your abilities will follow.
Respond to these instances with I…
- am capable of….
- have the ability to learn…
- can strive to be…
- can learn to…
EVALUATE WHAT’S GOING ON
What gets measured gets managed. Evaluate what works and what doesn’t for you. If you’re trying to build healthy eating habits to help lose some body fat are you taking measurements?
- Body girth
- Before and after photos
- Body fat tests
Are you paying attention to how your clothes are fitting, how your mood is changing, the increased energy you’re feeling?
WELCOME THE RESISTANCE
One of my favorite authors is Steven Pressfield. He has this to say about resistance.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance – Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.
Consistency is essential for success – not perfection. What will you do when imperfection occurs? If you do slip up on your diet, if you miss a workout, what then?
Do you completely throw in the towel and get a case of the I’ll start on Mondayitis?
LEARN AND RESPECT THE DIMINISHING LAW OF WILLPOWER
I recently sent out a survey and one of the questions was “what is one thing that keeps you from maintaining healthy eating and exercise habits?” Motivation topped the list.
You will not always be motivated. It is going to come and go. There are things you can to experience brief bouts of mojo but instead of worrying about always being motivated, instead focus on showing up, doing the work, and being consistent.
If you’re tired and don’t want to go to the gym then just do a 10-minute workout.
Perfectionism and optimalism are not distinct ways of being, an either-or choice, but rather they coexist in each person. And while we can move from perfectionism toward optimalism, we never fully leave perfectionism behind and never fully reach optimalism ahead. The optimalism ideal is not a distant shore to be reached but a distant star that guides us and can never be reached. As Carl Rogers pointed out, ‘The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination. – Ben Tal-Sharar
There have been a few instances in my life where I felt things were perfect. Things even stayed perfect for a little while but soon enough stuff happens and imperfection occurs.
I’ve come to realize that imperfection is essentially what makes us human. It makes us unique, exciting, and makes living life interesting.
There is no such thing as the perfect body, the perfect diet, the perfect job, or the perfect relationship. They all have brief moments of perfection. But are filled mostly with imperfections that you’ll have to accept and embrace.
What would you do with perfection once you got there anyway? Perfection is a direction, not a destination. Do not ignore reality along the way. Real growth is found in how you handle life’s little (and sometimes big) hiccups.
My challenge to you today. What area of your life are you striving to be perfect? What is ONE thing and ONE thing only that if you practiced consistently would get you better at it. Not perfect, just better.