It’s a tale as old as time. Is life black and white, or is it grey? Depending on your upbringing, your values or your lifestyle, you might feel strongly one way or another. And who really knows which answer is right? To each their own. But getting locked into an all-or-nothing mentality is another story.
Thinking in black and white arranges the world into extremes: good and evil, right and wrong. This duality might help us make sense of the world, but the truth is that most things can be approached from multiple perspectives, adding shades of grey to otherwise clear-cut answers. The tendency to overlook these alternatives is known as absolutist thinking, and can contribute to problematic patterns of thought.
All-or-nothing thinking often involves using absolute terms, such as never or ever. This type of thinking can also prohibit you from seeing the alternatives in a situation or solutions to a problem. If you’re someone like me, who suffers from anxiety, it’s easy to focus on only seeing the downside to any given situation. People who fall victim to all-or-nothing thinking believe that they’re either successful or a complete failure in life.
You might not even realize you’re doing it, to be honest. The biggest issue with all-or-nothing thinking is when you’re making an attempt to better yourself. Especially, when building new habits. For example, if you’re dieting or trying to exercise every day, if you go off the diet once or skip exercising for just one day, you give yourself an “F” and, in disgust, give up on it altogether (self-blame is almost sure to follow). Have you ever skipped a workout and thought, “Eh, I’ll just start again next week”? Or maybe, “I ate an unhealthy lunch so I might as well splurge the rest of the day”? It’s a really common thought process.
Think back to the past few dilemmas you’ve encountered. Maybe you disagreed with someone close to you on an issue. Maybe you saw something on social media that pushed your buttons and you decided to block that person. A lot of people turn to absolutist thinking rather than examining all the sides of the coin. It’s fine to disagree with people and stick to your own values and beliefs. It’s another thing to let it consume you and convince yourself that you aren’t good enough or succeeding.
So how do we deal with it? It’s all about reframing your mindset. Self-compassion is my go-to practice whenever I start judging myself harshly. I hope you’ll make it your go-to practice, too. All it requires is that you do whatever you can to ease your worried mind. In simpler terms, it means being nice to yourself.
How you treat yourself is one of the few things you control in life, so there’s never a reason not to be kind to yourself. Treating yourself with compassion helps you break the habit of all-or-nothing thinking because, when you’re kind to yourself, it’s easier to see things from a different perspective.
I have a couple different chronic illnesses that sometimes prevent me from doing daily tasks that are easy for “healthy” people. In the beginning, it was easy to get frustrated and down when I felt like I was a failure of a wife or a parent because my body wouldn’t cooperate. Nothing positive comes from treating yourself this way. The compassionate response would be something like: “I’d hoped to do the laundry today, but I’m in too much pain. That’s not my fault. I’ll do it when I feel better.”
The second thing you should do is focus on what you did do well and on what you did accomplish. When you’re stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset, you discount any small achievements as unimportant or unworthy. Discounting the positive like this is both unfair to you and self-destructive because it leaves you feeling like a failure, which you’re not!
Next time you find yourself trapped in this cycle, try these tips:
- Try to avoid unconditional terms, such as nothing or never.
- Notice when you’re thinking in black-or-white extremes and ask yourself if there’s a possibility for any grey area.
- Try to find the positive side of the situation.
- When you can only see one side of any situation, it can help to seek out the support of trusted friends or family. A support network may be able to assist you in finding solutions and thinking beyond absolute terms.
With all-or-nothing thinking, it’s all up to you. Don’t grade yourself on the harshest curve. There are other percentages out there besides 100 and 0. You’re doing great!
images of Françoise Hardy photographed by Jean-Marie Périer, c. 1964.
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