All or Nothing.

In case my clients hadn’t mentioned it enough this month, an excellent article about “All or Nothing” thinking showed up in my inbox a few days ago that sealed the deal on me writing about this topic.

For the uninitiated, All or Nothing thinking goes something like this: “I just ate x, which was not on my strict list of safe foods for my special and restrictive New Year’s resolution diet, and therefore I have ruined my day and I’m going to eat several more servings of x, as well as anything else I happen to encounter that is off-limits.” Other variants include the belief that an A minus is a bad grade, and since you just got one, you’re never going to do your homework again because what’s the point if you’re just going to fail, or that because you did not get this particular job, you are clearly unemployable and are never putting yourself through the humiliation of sending out a resume again.

There are a lot of problems with this kind of thinking. As my handy-dandy examples suggest, one of the most significant is that it tends to lead to quitting, inertia, anxiety, depressive thoughts and other totally fun experiences. The actions that flow from All or Nothing thinking are usually the opposite of effective. Otherwise known as ineffective.

Let’s take our poor sad friend on the All or Nothing diet who has “cheated” or “failed”: she’s really extra screwed because the rules of her diet were written by All or Nothing thinkers to start with, but beyond that, if the goal of the diet was to, for example, eat fewer treats, then responding to eating a treat by deciding she has failed and eating a whole bunch more treats is pretty counter-productive.

Here’s an alternative. (And for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s reasonable that the dieter has decided her health or self esteem or chronic headaches or whatever it is would be ameliorated if she ate fewer treats.) Rather than taking the All or Nothing path of deciding that all treats are off limits at all times forever (and therefore if she has one, she is a failure, and off the diet, and should “take advantage” of already having “ruined the day” and squash in as many treats as possible), she could think a more helpful, more effective thought. Something like “I’m going to pick one treat per day to really savor and enjoy to support myself in eating fewer treats overall. If I have a moment or day where I eat more treats, I’ll use that as a learning experience to see if there are any ways my plan needs to be adjusted.”

Now, if she eats an extra treat, she hasn’t failed, she has stumbled upon a piece of data that is a total gem because it’s going to help her figure out a more effective plan e.g. “Oh, I see that it’s not a good idea to eat my special treat when I’m distracted by paperwork because I won’t really savor it and I’ll be more likely to want more. Excellent! Good to know.” (Her therapist might have had to support her in re-framing things that way, but hey, it’s cool to ask for help.)

Similarly, with the A minus, and the job that doesn’t pan out, if the goals are academic success and employment, and the disappointment is a perception that these outcomes might not work out, quitting all together is only going to take our All or Nothing thinkers farther away from their goals. (Also, an A minus is a really good grade, and perfectionism is very All or Nothing.)

All or Nothing thinking isn’t logical by it’s nature because it’s usually driven by a strong emotion (shame, fear, remorse, despair, euphoria), which is the primary way to identify that you might be in the throes of it. Any action that you’re drawn to while experiencing a strong emotion is suspect, and worth putting through the All or Nothing test. And wouldn’t you know it: Mindfulness helps here. Holding awareness of your emotional state provides the opportunity to catch yourself in those heightened moments when you’re vulnerable to distorted thinking, which provides you with the opportunity to review your thoughts and action plans before tumbling down the All or Nothing rabbit hole.

Like so much of what I recommend to folks, this is hard work, but it’s a way easier path than holding yourself hostage to a cycle of unrealistic standards and constant feelings of failure. At least, I think so.