All-Or-Nothing Thinking: My Story

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Also called black-and-white thinking: If something isn’t perfect you call it a total failure.
You honk on one wrong note in a piece and you say the whole thing sucked.
You create a lighting effect on your painting that you don’t love and throw the whole thing in the trash.
You don’t achieve a personal record and you say the whole race was a waste of time. (Pun intended.)

My first vivid experience of all-or-nothing thinking occurred when I was a high school freshman and accompanying the chorus on the piano. I briefly lost my place and dropped out for a few bars. I then found my place and completed the piece. When the concert ended I sobbed uncontrollably, believing that I had humiliated myself in front of an auditorium full of students and families. No one could convince me that my lapse wasn’t noticeable or significant. (This also has elements of mind reading, mental filter, discounting the positive, and magnifying.) I refused to play piano in public (though, happily, I still sang in the chorus) for many years.

My all-or-nothing thinking about my sport manifested differently. You might say it was “all-around -or- nothing thinking.” Although I hated vault and balance beam I forced myself to do them because I thought I should compete all-around. (Shoulda-coulda thinking here too. More on that in another post.) Nothing less than all was acceptable. (For those who aren’t into gymnastics: women have 4 events: floor exercise, vault, balance beam, and uneven parallel bars. To compete in all 4 is to compete “all around.”) If I had let myself do the 2 events I really liked—floor and bars—I would have had a lot more fun and been a better gymnast.

In my next post I’ll talk about how to counter all-or-nothing thinking.

Digging In

Discounting the Positive

It took the intervention of a really good supervisor (and the persistence of my husband) to break this habit. A specialty of mine was laughing off compliments by saying something self-deprecating in a humorous way. Maybe something like, “Yeah, sure, but I didn’t exactly achieve world peace.”

What is “discounting the positive”? You find ways to say that what you did accomplish doesn’t count. “I had a generous judge.” “It’s always easy for me to work in pastels.” “I copped that idea from someone else.” “I swim fast because I have long arms.” “Anyone else could have done it.”

1) What is the evidence?
Everyone else had the same generous judge. Since there’s nothing new under the sun, maybe you did cop that idea but you also put your particular spin on it. Maybe you have long arms; but not everyone with long arms can swim, let alone swim fast. Maybe anyone else could have done it; but did they?

2) What are alternative explanations?
That someone else created that piece? That someone else swam your race? I don’t think so.

3) What are the implications?
Maybe you did get lucky this once. Maybe you did “borrow” someone else’s idea. Maybe you do have long arms. None of that takes away from the totality of your efforts in your art or sport. You’ll find that out if you only rely on getting lucky, or stop practicing because you’re relying on your long arms, or only look at others’ ideas to make good, creative work.

4) Is this thought useful? I doubt it. What do you think?

A coach can both help you see if and when you fall into this trap, and also be a great cheerleader for all the positives you do.