By Cristina Stanger, Self-Advocacy Liaison, WRFN
*This article was originally published in the Family Pulse Newsletter November 2020*
All-or-nothing thinking is a pattern of thought that I have been predisposed to my whole life. It may also be referred to as black-and-white thinking, or thinking in extremes. Whatever you want to call it, it is usually not the most helpful way to approach a situation. Challenging myself to think differently takes some dedicated effort, and I have used Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to help work through this. One trick I’ve learned to help identify this type of thinking is to monitor my own choice of words. Terms that imply absolutes will show up in both my internal dialogue and in my external conversations (ex. always, never, right, wrong). Watch for these in my anecdotes below; they don’t leave much wiggle room to consider other possibilities. All-or-nothing thinking can creep into my thought processes in all kinds of different ways, from house cleaning, to pursuing hobbies, to holiday planning.
While a bathroom may seem trivial, it became a significant issue for me as I only wanted to clean it the “right” way (from showerhead to baseboards) which took an impractical amount of time, not to mention that the process was so involved that the task became overwhelming. This became paralyzing and then I wouldn’t clean my bathroom at all. With time, I learned to ask myself, “What truly matters here? What do I value?” In this case, I did not want to live in a perpetually grimy bathroom, so I needed to make the cleaning task manageable. I had to prioritize various areas of the bathroom, and look at the steps needed to clean each element, rather than looking at the entire bathroom all at once (and the baseboards were deemed a once-in-a-while thing).
Other times, all-or-nothing thinking infiltrates an activity I usually enjoy. If I make an error on an art project, I may want to give up altogether and genuinely feel that I wasted materials, and that I never should have bothered trying. This is neither true, nor is it fair to myself, but that is where my mind goes first and I have to work my way out of that thinking. Perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking tend to go hand in hand. This can suck all the fun and entertainment out of what was intended as an enjoyable endeavour. Gradually, I have learned to stop and prompt myself with the questions “What was I able to do? What else can I do?” This gives room to look for alternatives, and I can consider other possibilities between failure and perfection. In this scenario, it helps me to look at art as a process, promoting a growth mindset. Trust me, I don’t get to this headspace every time, or on the first try, but I am learning to manage my all-or-nothing tendency.
I found it amusing when I realized I was actually seeking out the grey areas in my thought processes, because as a general rule, I find ‘grey areas’ in life quite confusing. I bring this up now because I know many people, myself included, may be frustrated by the way the coronavirus has forced us to change many of the things that we do, including altering our traditions for various holidays. And while it can feel like a holiday is being lost, if I stop to ask myself the two questions (1. What do I value?, 2. What is it that I can do?) I am able to find something positive to hold on to, something worth celebrating. Whatever colours you use to mark the holiday season, I hope you can identify any black-and-white thinking and seek out a little grey instead.