Straying clear of “all or nothing” attitude

by Chaitali

Ever caught yourself saying – this is either good or its bad, I’m right or I’m wrong, I either believe in god or I don’t, I’m a good person if I do this or else I’ll go to hell, I’m either thin or else I’m fat, I’ll have this or else nothing, I’m rich or I’m poor, I’m a democrat or I’m a republican! Or maybe even- if I miss my diet meal today then what’s the point! I can’t do it anyways.

Sounds familiar? These are the examples of black and white or in other words the all or nothing attitude. 

All of us like putting things into categories because it makes our work simple. However, in the pursuit of simplifying things, we end up putting everything into water tight containers.  Almost saying – once here it can’t be there! 

The problem with this sort of thinking is that we seem to limit ourselves to only two options, either this or that and completely miss out on the beautiful balance of “the in between”. 

We all want to live a balanced life but often find ourselves stuck wondering why things don’t work out. Here’s a relief, it’s not that we aren’t trying or doing something wrong- it is our thought distortions. It’s the loop of either-or, this or that. 

This type of thinking manifests in a plethora of circumstances. Usually, it’s attributed to our values, beliefs and self-worth. But mostly used to make sense of our experiences. 

Here is an example – I go for a job interview and I believe that I’m a good fit. However, during the interview, I’m unable to answer something simple because I’m nervous, and I come out believing that the whole interview was terrible because I’m no good! How could I not remember such a tiny thing? I’m terrible! No one is going to hire me! Although a lot of things might have gone well, but I came out thinking of that one slip-up and labelled myself as terrible! Similar things happen when someone doesn’t like our work, or the meal we cooked, our ideas or when we have different beliefs. 

You see, when we attach the “all or nothing” to an outcome, we go to the extremes and end up having very high expectations. And when these self-imposed expectations aren’t achieved (which we obviously won’t as it requires us to have only positive results and with utmost perfection), we tend to take a personal hit in terms of our self-esteem, self-worth and confidence. 

Usually, this is common among the perfectionists, anxiety prone with low motivation. However, it is not limited to them. Those who have rigid beliefs and strong ideas also fall prey to this kind of thinking. We all do at some point. 

So how do we stray clear of this thinking distortion and move towards a balanced outlook?

Focus on your constants: 

When we base our self-worth on our performance, it fluctuates like the outcomes. Not every action results in a positive and not every day is good. However, when we focus on our constants like having an open mind, being a caring/ compassionate person and showing empathy to all, we deepen our roots as a person, not getting swayed by the changing opinions of either-or mind-set.

Substitute “or” with “and”: 

Yes, you could be an atheist and yet believe in miracles. You could be highly spiritual and yet have some doubts at times. You could be horrible at math and yet be able to ace basic questions. You could generally be a good person and still make bad decisions! You could be great at your work and still goof up! The idea is to come to a middle ground. The third alternative than just either this or that! It takes a lot of the pressure off and allows us to accept things as they are. 

Celebrate small wins: 

It is easy to label the whole day as horrible, when one event turned out bad. We often miss out the other things that did go well. Hence, it is essential to celebrate the tiniest wins of the day. I might have forgotten something in the interview and I still could’ve managed to do a lot of other things right to land me that job. The next time you do something well, however insignificant, take a moment and appreciate yourself. This will go a long way in steering away from all or nothing thinking but will also boost your self-worth and confidence. 

Probe deeper with prompts: 

Deep meaningful questions set us on the path of curiosity. Have a list of questions that will help you think for yourself if you’re on the right path. Here are a few to get you started:

  • What are the emotions I’m feeling in regards to this situation?
  • What is true and what are just my assumptions?
  • What about this situation do I agree with and why? 
  • What are the pros of the counter arguments?
  • What could be a third alternative/ middle ground for this?
  • Can there be a win-win for all here? 

All or nothing thinking is a pattern of thought that can be altered to live a better and more enriching life. It helps us come in balance and appreciate the complexities and dichotomies of life. 

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