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Going to Extremes—How to Overcome the Effects of All-or-Nothing Thinking

*Do you believe that achieving less than perfection means you failed?

*Does being less than perfect mean you are a failure?

*Does failing mean that you’re unworthy of success?

Answering yes to any of these questions is a sign of all-or-nothing thinking. And it could be destroying your ability to make long-term changes in life.

As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I identify with all-or-nothing thinking. Most of the time, I’ll have a list of tasks outlining what I need to do well to consider myself to be successful. I’m setting high standards for myself, not realizing that I’m stacking the deck against myself.

This mindset works against me sometimes because I don’t allow alternate paths to reach my goals. All-or-thinking keeps me from seeing the progress I’m making towards achieving my goals. And for me, progress is the primary source of my motivation to continue working hard.

You may not fully understand how all-or-nothing thinking is holding you back. So, in this post, I want to explain how all-or-nothing thinking gets in the way of making progress towards creating your dream life. In this post, I’ll explain how all-or-nothing thinking could be affecting you in life.

Let’s imagine that you’ve been working on an important business project. At the end of the project, your boss gives you feedback about your performance. Her comments are 95% positive and include one or two improvement areas for consideration. Instead of feeling excited about your accomplishments, you walk away from the conversation feeling deflated. Why? Because her feedback wasn’t 100% positive.

You might feel like a failure because you didn’t hit a home run as you’d hoped, and you can’t stop thinking about the things you didn’t do correctly. Doing so may lead you to question your ability to do your job well and make you wonder if you’re qualified for your role. The problem here is that questioning your value solely based on a few mistakes is irrational.

This example illustrates how all-or-nothing thinking prevents you from creating the mindset that helps you achieve the dreams you have in life. So, in this post, I will explain how to bring awareness to your all-or-nothing thinking patterns and how it holds you back from making progress towards your goals. Plus, I’ll share a technique to keep all-or-nothing thinking and your brain in check!

What is all or nothing thinking?

The best way to describe all-or-nothing thinking is thinking in extreme opposites. Things are all good, or they’re all terrible. Either you did an excellent job, or you failed horribly. You see yourself as a complete success or a total failure.

With all-or-nothing thinking, the proverbial glass is either empty or full.

All-or-nothing thinking traps you into thinking that there’s no middle ground, and the only possible outcomes are good or bad. This mindset leaves little room for error. However, errors are a vital part of the learning process. All-or-nothing thinking is a form of self-sabotage because it limits your definition of success and sets you up for failure.

All-or-nothing thinking also shows up in the language you use. Using words like: always, never, should have, must, have to, ought to, supposed to, demonstrate a mindset that does not facilitate growth. And if you’re trying to turn your life’s dreams into a reality, you must prepare to grow in ways you never conceived.

How is all-or-nothing thinking keep you stuck in life?

All-or-nothing thinking can’t support the significant life changes you must make to realize your most ambitious dreams. It keeps you stuck in a distorted reality. And over time, you risk losing your sense of motivation, or you become unable to experience the joy that comes along with achieving your goals.

At its core, all-or-nothing is a self-denigrating mindset. It floods you with overwhelming negative emotions. If you’ve ever been overwhelmed, you know it’s hard to think, make decisions, and take action. The cumulative effect of all-or-nothing thinking results in action paralysis.

Here’s what happens when all-or-nothing thinking takes over.

1.) You set yourself up for disappointment.

How many times have you had a day that went precisely as you planned? Even on our best days, things don’t always turn out the way we hoped. But does that mean that the entire day was a bust? All-or-nothing thinking keeps you focused on those negative aspects of your day instead of celebrating the things that went well.

2.) You weigh yourself down unnecessarily.

Now, imagine this. Without providing any explanation, someone hands you a 25-pound weight and tells you to carry it all day. After a couple of hours, the weight begins to feel twice as heavy, and you still don’t know why you’re holding it in the first place. That’s what happens with all-or-nothing thinking. You take on extra mental weight for no apparent reason.

All-or-nothing thinking is dead weight, so drop it!

3.) You fail to launch.

All-or-nothing thinking hinders your ability to move from your imagination to your destination. It keeps you stuck in a holding pattern, where one of two things occurs.

All-or-nothing thinking forces you to stay in perfectionist mode, so you’re not allowed to make mistakes. Intellectually, we all know that you have to make a few errors or even fail to reach your goals. But all-or-nothing thinking shuts off that part of your brain that knows better by keeping you stuck in your comfort zone. The result is that you never risk making the changes you want in life because you think everything has to be perfect.

In the second scenario, you wait for the right time. If you’re waiting for the kids to graduate high school and go off to college to start your business or to pursue the thing you’ve always dreamed about, all-or-nothing thinking has you under its spell. It’s distorting your perspective of what’s already within your reach.

So, how do you overcome this thinking so you can’t create the life you’ve always wanted to live? Well, I have a strategy that I want you to try the next time you notice all-or-nothing starts taking you off track.

How to manage all-or-nothing thinking

I designed a strategy to help you reset your brain so that all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t keep you stuck in a holding pattern. My TAME YOUR BRAIN 🧠 technique has two components that address all-or-nothing thinking patterns. Here’s how it works.

First, separate fact from fiction. Identify the facts in the situation you’re experiencing. Using the previous work example, think about what happened versus the BELIEFS.



​​Your boss commended you for doing a good job.

You thought you didn’t do a good job because your work wasn’t perfect.

Your boss told you that you have areas to improve.

You thought you failed because your work wasn’t perfect.

The difference between the facts and your beliefs is that facts are verifiable, and beliefs are based on your thoughts. So, ask yourself: Which is the more reliable information source, the facts, or your brain’s interpretation of those facts?

Second, play to the middle. Life is not always black or white. So, how is thinking in absolutes productive? When all-or-nothing thinking arises, search for the middle ground. Remember, perfectionism drives all-or-nothing thinking. It’s making you believe that you’ll never be good enough, and that type of mindset stunts your personal growth and development.

Commit to finding a neutral point in your beliefs about your performance. For example, try replacing your self-defeating thoughts with unbiased thoughts like, I accomplished a lot on this project, and I have a couple of things that will make my work stronger. This simple mindset shift sounds more motivating than believing you’re a failure because you didn’t do everything perfectly.

You’ll need to practice this technique a few times before it sticks. And there’s no magic number of times that it will take. Just surrender your perfectionist habits and get into the habit of recognizing all-or-nothing thinking. Over time, you’ll begin correcting your thoughts and get on with the work of living your dreams.

The takeaway

We all experience all-or-nothing thinking, especially if you’re a perfectionist. The takeaway here is to set yourself up for success by making space to learn how to correct all-or-nothing thinking. Be patient and kind to yourself. Use your experiences as learning and growth opportunities. There’s no reason why you shouldn't be enjoying the process of creating your dream life and all that joy that comes along with it.

Now, please don’t forget to subscribe to the blog. I don’t want you to miss the final installment in this series because I saved the best for last! The next post will cover a MAJOR faulty thinking pattern. And I know that many people suffer from it—fear of the unknown. Subscribe to the blog, and you’ll get notified when I publish the post.

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Image: manu schwendener—Unsplash

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Dr. Mario Jackson 
Lifestyle Transition Coach & Speaker

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Empowering Gen Xers to ditch the idea of waiting for retirement to enjoy the lifestyle they crave in life NOW!

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