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Getting Past All Or Nothing Thinking

by bevbarnes on December 13, 2012

Do you suffer from all or nothing thinking?  Do you do everything in an exceptional way or nothing at all?

When I worked in the Corporate world one of my staff, I’ll call her Sally, was an all or nothinger.  Her work was amazing, impeccably done, above and beyond what was expected.   She was a dream employee.

And then she’d fall apart.

Unable to focus.  Procrastination.  Snarkiness.  Sulking.

I was really confused.  It was hard for me to believe that Super Competent Sally and Snarky Sulking Sally were the same person.

Sally had two parts of her that were running her life.  She was either beyond perfect or a total washout.

It was an exhausting cycle.

Do you see this pattern in yourself or someone that you know? 

It masquerades as the healthy play/rest cycle:  play/work until you get tired and then rest/revive and rejuvenate until you feel like playing/working again.

But it’s not.

The all or nothing pattern is: do absolutely everything perfectly – maintain a hyper vigilant focus and a tight rein over yourself, be highly self – critical and judge everyone else – let your inner dictator crack the whip and GET IT DONE.

Then wait because the sulky inner teenager (the 14 year old rebel that lives inside you) will show up.  She refuses to do ANYTHING.  She snarls, sulks and pouts.

That’s the all or nothing cycle:   work perfectly to the point of exhaustion, beating yourself up and criticizing everyone else who isn’t working as hard as you are, then fall on the couch, refuse to get dressed, watch mind-numbing television and eat sugar.

This pattern makes it really, really difficult to enjoy getting anything done.

A very wise woman and one of my personal mentors, Martha Beck once said,

“The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

If you see this pattern anywhere in your life then it is probably everywhere in your life. For two weeks you do 45 minutes on the elliptical, then nothing for six months.  For two days you classify and clear your email in box and then nothing until your service provider contacts you to get more memory for your account or delete what’s accumulated.

With all or nothing thinking, your inner dictator thinks you need to whip yourself to get anything done and your inner teenager pouts, rebels and WILL NOT MOVE.

All or nothing thinking is just a habit.

It’s not a disease.  It’s not an illness.

You don’t have to figure out why you react like this.  You just have to decide to get past it.

Here’s how:

1.  Notice the pattern.  Notice how it shows up.  Notice what you are feeling like when you are in an achieving frenzy.  Notice what you feel like when you crash.


2.  Evaluate whether you want to keep or dump this pattern of behaviour.  Ask yourself it brings you closer to your goals or further away.  If your answer is further away, read on.


3.  Recognize that you aren’t the Super Competent Sally and you aren’t the Snarky, Sulky Sally either.  You are Sane Wise Sally who is observing this battle.


4.  Ask your Sane Wise Sally what she really wants to achieve.  Listen carefully.  These are your goals.


5.  Break down your goals down into tiny, tiny action steps that feel ultra easy (sane).  Decide to do the thing that feels too easy to be a goal every single day.  That could mean that you do 10  minutes on the elliptical rather than 45, or you spend 10 minutes a day researching web designers rather than creating your website by Friday.


6.  Reward yourself.  Allow yourself to feel proud and grateful for the small step you have taken.  For me a reward means giving myself 2 minutes to actually enjoy and feel the sensation of joy throughout my body when I accomplish one tiny thing.  I don’t have to buy myself a present.  Of course, if you need a present go ahead and get one for yourself.


7.  Repeat these tiny, tiny steps until you reach your goal.


I LOVE hearing from you.  Do you suffer from all or nothing thinking?  How do you deal with it?  Share your insights below on the blog!


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz December 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm

I am “in recovery” from this habit. I still fall into it, and especially when something is important to me (my life’s work work, special friendships). I’m not always there, though, and I tend to notice it and get out of it a little earlier than I would have, say, 9 months ago. In face, this post to your blog is any example of me trying not to do all or nothing or get it perfect! I like what you said about how you don’t have to figure out why you’re doing it, you just have to decide if you want to keep doing it.


Bev Barnes December 13, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Hi Liz. I think we spend too much time trying to figure out why and not enough time just noticing what we do and then deciding if it helps or hurts our lives. Thanks for jumping in!


Adrienne December 14, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Great advice, Bev. I especially love your two minute reward and hope to remember it in the busy-ness of this season… so much better than any gift I could buy myself and regret later 🙂 – thank you


Bev Barnes December 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I’m glad it helped Adrienne. I’m a big fan of actually allowing yourself to feel the sensations in your body when you are happy or proud about something. We so often rush onto the next thing instead of savoring. Happy holidays!


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