One common struggle that our clients face is All or Nothing thinking. You might be familiar with this concept as it shows up for many of us in a few ways. 

  1. When you do something, you have to give it everything you have, anything less is failure. (ALL)
  2. You resent when other people don’t have this same attitude, and you view them as less committed, hardworking etc. (ALL)
  3. You can’t do something perfectly so you’d rather not do it or even start doing it. (NOTHING)
  4. You feel like a failure when you make a small stumble which can then turn into stopping or bailing on what you set out to do. (NOTHING)

When you subscribe to All or Nothing thinking, in your head it can sound like, “I’m killing it” or “I’m a total failure,” without much in between.

Being committed vs All or Nothing Thinking

When I first learned how to hold people accountable the standard was that everyone needed to be 100% committed. At that time, I was supporting year long groups that met once a month. We spent a whole training day on commitment and what it meant to be in a ‘state of commitment’ with a powerful exercise that illustrated that being in a state of commitment meant absolutely nothing would get in your way.

To this day, I personally love being in a state of commitment. I enjoy the energetic shift that comes with getting everything I set out to do – done. It’s as if there is an electric charge in the air, gears are turning, the dial on creativity is turned way up. Even before you see the roadblocks, you know they aren’t going to stop you. Being single-mindedly focused, relentless, and on fire feels good.

An Important Lesson

When I first started doing this work, that was what I thought I needed to be – ALL THE TIME. Then I learned an important lesson.

A few of us got together and decided to set goals but this time added a consequence if we failed. And if you can believe it, we decided to SHAVE OUR HEADS. I know, what were we thinking?!

My goal was to lose 10 pounds. It was a terrible experience. I did everything I said I would, I was 100% committed. I exercised, I counted calories, and math said I should be losing weight but it was not happening fast enough. As the cutoff date approached I was only down 5-lbs and I had 10 days to go. I started to consider taking drastic measures. I lost sleep, couldn’t focus at work, and became consumed by the ridiculous goal I had set for myself. Finally, I confessed my predicament to my Ayurvedic doctor and she put me on a cleanse for 7 days. I lost the last 5 pounds and weighed my goal weight for exactly one day. I hadn’t achieved anything real or lasting or significant. 

A Cognitive Distortion

All or Nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion. Meaning you take something small and make it mean something much larger about who you are. In my example above, I turned losing 10 pounds into meaning how committed of a person I was, and worse than that, I put a consequence on ‘failing.’ It is also a binary way of thinking, when we know that there are many shades in between.

Recognizing All or Nothing Thinking

Now, I do my best to recognize these distortions when I see them. Good hints you have All or Nothing thinking going on are: 

  1. Your singular focus on accomplishing your goal makes you behave in ways that are not in alignment with your values.
  2. You are extremely hard on others that don’t share your singular focus often thinking of them as less than.
  3. You can easily take a setback as a personal failure and be extremely hard on yourself for it. 
  4. You think if you messed up once, all the good choices you’ve made don’t count or even give up when you mess up. 

Unwinding All or Nothing Thinking

In my experience, the most powerful unwinding you can do, is to:

  1. Take care of what you think. Recognize distorted thinking for what it is – a barrier to what it is you really want. You can tell the difference between being in a ‘state of commitment’ and being in the ALL side of All or Nothing thinking because one feels good and aligned with your values and the other does not.
  2. Be clear on your values. Knowing what matters most to you, what you value, is important for so many reasons but here because it gives you information about when you are valuing the outcome over how you arrive at the outcome.
  3. Do things imperfectly. According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is an addictive behavior that we engage in to avoid pain. So doing things imperfectly is a lot harder than it sounds. It is vulnerable and brave.
  4. Allow for slip ups and off days. That means you binge Netflix. You eat the extra slice of pizza and the next morning you drink your normal shake. You take a nap in the middle of the day. All without judgment, shame or ugly self-talk.
  5. Keep going. You don’t give up on yourself or your goals. You realize that you are in a process that takes time. 

What did I learn from my terrible near-head shaving experience? That being too “All” or too “Nothing” are different sides of the same coin. They both come with regrets. Action aligned with meaningful goals, supported by compassion and consistency are where it’s at.