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A Personal Exploration: All-or-Nothing Thinking

all or nothing thinkingAs I was walking from my friend’s house the other morning on my way to work, my mind had time to muse. It started to wander to you, my readers and the work we’ve been doing on all-or-nothing thinking. I was enjoying the warmth in the air at 8:00 am. The sun was shining. It seemed that everyone I passed had a bounce in their step as we welcomed each other warmly and celebrated the long-awaited arrival of summer.

As I walked down one quiet street, a young couple emerged from their home and waved at the elderly lady next door who stood, watering her garden out front. After thanking her profusely, for what I do not know, they got in their car and zipped off down the street.

Still a half block away I began to look more closely at the lady with the hose. She had to be somewhere in her late 80’s I guessed, with short, grey hair in tight ringlets around her ears. Her skin was dark, like that of a south Asian and she stood, one hand on one perfectly-full grandma hip, one on the hose watering her flower bed alongside her front fence.

She had smiled warmly at the couple as they thanked her for who knows what and was obviously a kind and friendly neighbour. But as our eyes made contact and I smiled and issued my “Good Morning!”, my step still bouncy from the beauty of the morning, her eyes went cool and a reluctant “good morning” barely escaped her lips.

Her eyes immediately shot back to her hose and her flowers, her hand perhaps a little more forcefully pressing against her round hip.  What was that? Before I could stop my thought it burbled up before me: “What had I done?” My brain had done its initial, split second analysis of the situation and somehow came up with me pissing her off.

Of course even as that old knee-jerk thought became conscious, I knew solidly that there was nothing I had done to trigger her stony welcome. And so even though my early morning parade had received a sprinkle of rain, I quickly shook it off, let it go, and kept on towards my office greeting other passers-by and celebrating the sunny day.

As I walked on, I began to play in my mind with countless similar scenarios from my past and how I would have felt and responded to the old woman’s terse hello when I still binged to cope with stress; when I was chronically stressed because I still believed that everyone’s emotions were about me and that everybody else’s perspective on the world and on me was “right” and mine was just plain “wrong.”

Way back in my supremely co-dependent days, I would have immediately felt anxious and insecure. I would have assumed that I had done something or that there was something about how I looked or sounded that was offensive to her and that I should change. For if a friendly little old lady didn’t like me or want to speak to me, who else would?

Back in the day, this most certainly would have triggered me to scan my body for imperfections and inappropriate dress. Perhaps too much leg showing? My zipper undone? Too much make-up? Hair. Was it my hair? My skin? She was dark-skinned, maybe not a fan of Caucasians? But no, the couple had been white… Okay then, maybe my good morning wasn’t sincere enough, that was it, certainly! She had felt my good morning was insincere and was judging me as being fake and phony and stupid and fat and I had best not say hello to anyone else on my walk and just get to the office as quickly as possible so I don’t offend anyone else or experience any more judgement or rejection….WOAH!!! Bloomin’ woah!!!

Did I really used to think like that? Unfortunately yes. 24/7. Back in the day.  It was exhausting just thinking of leaving my house let alone actually being out and about. I had to binge upon returning home just to soothe and reward myself for putting myself out there. But of course, it wasn’t all that soothing because I would verbally beat up on myself during and after and need to binge again just to feel a bit of peace – which again was short lived – and round and round again I went.

Now, it’s pretty obvious to me now how much all-or-nothing thinking was triggering me to feel so awful and so hopeless. But it may still not be so obvious to you. So let’s break it down thought by thought so you can see it more clearly and catch it in your own noggin’ much faster. And if you’re not sure how this is going to help you with your binging or restricting or purging then let me tell you:

Your thoughts trigger an emotional response in the body which is designed to get your attention and elicit some behavioural response – some action you take towards yourself or out there in the world in order to respond appropriately to the thought.

If your thoughts are clear and rational you will feel significantly less anxious, whatever is going on, and therefore you will feel less of a need to use harmful coping strategies like binging and such. So being able to learn to think more clearly and to catch yourself when you are not is fundamental to not using food to cope anymore (and it’s much easier than trying to change things at the behaviour level as you likely have been with diets and exercise programs).

Let’s break it down – All-or-nothing statements are in bold.

All-or-nothing statement #1:

As I walked on, I began to play in my mind with countless similar scenarios from my past and how I would have felt and responded to the old woman’s terse hello when I still believed that everybody else’s perspective on the world and on me was “right” and mine was just plain “wrong.”

Exploration:

Okay, here I’ve got a big red flag for all-or-nothing thinking: “everybody.” Words like always, never, everybody, nobody, etc. are all-or-nothing words. They are almost always profound exaggerations given the diversity of the human being and the truth of different strokes for different folks.

Also, suggesting that everybody’s perspective was “right” is flawed in a couple of ways:

  1. That there is a true “right” and “wrong” – this is simply not so. There’s your truth borne of your experience and my truth borne of mine. If our truths are close enough, we say we agree. If we disagree that doesn’t make your perspective wrong necessarily, or mine. It actually means that at this point we disagree. Likely if I just asked you some questions about why you see something the way you do, I would learn a great deal about you and your perspective. It might make me adjust mine and it might not, depending on how it fits for me.
  2. That everyone else knew better and knew more than I did, thus, if we had a difference of opinion or perspective I was immediately inferior and foolish, if only in my own mind. It is this thought that would have prevented me from asking questions about your perspective in the past or from even admitting that my perspective was different from yours, lest you should judge me and reject me.

All-or-nothing statement #2:

Way back in my supremely co-dependent days, I would have immediately felt anxious and insecure. I would have assumed that I had done something

Exploration:

It’s very all-or-nothing and stems from the good old co-dependent training to assume that whatever is going on has to do with me and that therefore I have do to something to make “it” better. Of course if I don’t even really know what I “did” in the first place, how can I confidently and effectively resolve it? The solution lies in first not assuming I did anything and then in asking questions of the other person if I can’t just let it go myself about what they’re feeling and needing (not specific to me). In this way, I get to hear about what, if anything, is up for them and in my life experience, much to my ego’s chagrin but my higher self’s delight, it rarely has anything at all to do with me. And in those rare situations where it does, I now get to hear what exactly isn’t working for the other person and what I can do, if I so choose, to resolve things.

All-or-nothing statement #3:

or that there was something about how I looked or sounded that was offensive to her

Exploration:

Here again, I’m assuming her response had anything at all to do with me and that it was negative. For all I know, she didn’t even hear me or she was preoccupied with something or had a rule about not speaking to strangers, etc., etc., etc. There are so many alternative possibilities to why this woman responded as she did. Why would I choose to settle on one that has her judging me negatively and me being bad and wrong for some unknown slight or transgression? A rational human wouldn’t. Back in my co-dependent days, I did it 24/7.

All-or-nothing statement #4:

and that I should change.

Exploration:

Just because someone has judgement of me, if in fact they do, doesn’t mean there is something wrong with me at all. It simply means that what I did didn’t make sense to them or didn’t work for them in some way. That’s not a problem at all – again different strokes for different folks – diversity is a part of life – it’s only when I buy into the all-or-nothing training that there is only one “right” perspective, and if you’re judging me, then you are right and I’m screwed, that differences become a big problem.

All-or-nothing statement #5:

For if a friendly little old lady didn’t like me or want to speak to me who else would?

Exploration:

So, now, this woman has the “right” perspective on me – whatever that is, and if she doesn’t like me, no one else will? How’s that for imbuing her with God-like qualities and me with all the power of a speck of sand? No wonder I felt so small and insecure all the time.

All or nothing statement #6:

This would have triggered me to scan my body for imperfections and inappropriate dress, perhaps too much leg showing? My zipper undone?

Too much make-up? Hair.

Was it my hair? My skin?

Exploration:

Any time we imagine that there is a right or wrong/acceptable or unacceptable way to do our hair, make-up, dress, etc., we are again in all-or-nothing thinking, buying into someone else’s idea of fashion, style, appropriate dress, etc.  There is no one right or wrong way to look. There may be situations where things are more appropriate and less appropriate given a certain culture’s standards, but there is much room for individual expression in most cultures, too.

All-or-nothing statement #7:

She was dark-skinned, maybe not a fan of Caucasians? But no, the couple had been white…

Exploration:

Well now it’s getting tired. I don’t even know this woman had an issue with me really, and back in the day, my mind would have been telling myself that she was judging me as culturally / racially unacceptable. I might have even started buying into “white person’s guilt” and having some nasty intrusive ideation about all the things white people did to people of her heritage. In truth, of course, I am not responsible for her past or anything that she thinks or feels, end of story.

All-or-nothing statement #8:

Okay then, maybe my good morning wasn’t sincere enough, that was it, certainly! She had felt my good morning was insincere!

Exploration:

Ah, so now there’s a right and wrong way to say a happy good morning to an elderly lady watering her garden! Really? Back in the day, yes. Now, of course not. The all-or-nothing thinking would have me being responsible for her perception of me and my sincerity. Now I know that people’s perceptions, despite any of my best intentions, are predominantly created by their past experiences and the way they’ve been taught to make sense of their behaviour and that of other people. So I sure don’t take it personally. If anything, I ask a question to see what’s going on for them and to clarify that I am, in fact, reading their reaction/behaviour/comment properly. An interesting discovery I have made from asking questions rather than just assuming my perceptions are accurate is that typically, whatever I was assuming was about me, wasn’t. At best, it’s completely unrelated to me. At worst, it’s a simple misunderstanding that I can now clarify because I asked a question. Problem solved, co-dependence gone, interdependence flowing nicely.

All-or-nothing statement #9

She was judging me as being fake and phony and stupid and fat and

Exploration:

Okee dokee–back in the day this was all in my old noggin’. How on earth does a terse good morning translate into me being fake, phony, stupid and fat? It doesn’t. Back in the day, my mind was predisposed to just go there because of my past experiences and the judgements that others made of me or that I assumed they were making of me. I sure don’t think that way about myself at all now, but there once was a time where if you had gas and looked at me a little funny, I’d feel crushed and assume I was a loser and you knew it and I had best go home and hide under the covers, pronto!  Now I know that I am competent, intelligent, deserving of dignity and respect and worthy of love and care from myself and others. And that’s my goal for you, too.

All-or-nothing statement #10:

I had best not say hello to anyone else on my walk and just get to the office as quickly as possible

Exploration:

Here I’m in mega all-or-nothing because I’m assuming that this woman is every woman and that the way she responded to me will be the way everyone does. In truth, my attitude and how I approach people has a lot to do with how they approach me: 50% in fact, the other 50% is what’s up for the other person. I have power over 50% of any relationship – my 50%, not theirs. What they think and feel and do is up to them entirely, and when you stay grounded in that thought, you cannot be abused, you cannot be in a harmful co-dependent relationship, and your overall anxiety level is reduced to nil.

All-or-nothing statement #11:

so I don’t offend anyone else or

Exploration:

All-or-nuttin’! If I don’t even know for sure that I offended her at all, why am I trying to find ways to not offend anyone else? Back in the day, I used to believe everyone thought the same, and that if one person thought something about me, everyone did. Now I know that what you think is dependent on your upbringing, how much personal growth work you’ve done, whether you ate well that day, whether you slept well the night before, what’s going on in your life personally and professionally, your health overall, etc., etc. I am not the reason you think or do anything. And that is very freeing. You are not the reason that anyone in your life thinks or does or feels anything. Their thoughts are, and you have no power over their thoughts. All you have power over is being honouring of your core values and principles, and that’s all you’re responsible for as an adult in this world.

All-or-nothing statement #12:

experience any more judgement or rejection

Exploration:

Again, I don’t even know for a fact that I was judged. And rejection? I don’t even know this woman? She knows nothing about me. How can she reject me? Well she can’t. She can be resistant to connection with me for a variety of reasons that are valid to her but that isn’t about me, it’s all about her stories, her energy, her openness, and potentially her hearing!

So, there you have it. The mind of an all-or-nothing thinker exposed. Sound familiar?

To think that I used to think this way 24/7 for many years is sad. I think of all the time and energy I wasted being fearful and thinking irrationally like this; all the opportunities I missed because I was so insecure and assuming that others were thinking the worst of me and that if they were, they were right and I was crap.

Sad. But gone. Long gone. Now my anxiety level is my indicator of whether I’m thinking rationally or not or whether I have a problem that actually needs my attention. I don’t need to use harmful coping strategies to manage my emotions and to dull my awareness of my scary, critical thoughts.

The more emphasis you place on catching and releasing your all-or-nothing thinking, the faster you’ll feel peaceful, and the faster you’ll stop using food to cope. Guaranteed!

Have a great week.

The CEDRIC Centre - Michelle Morand

Posted in: All-or-Nothing Thinking, CEDRIC Centre

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5 Comments

  1. Julie July 16, 2011

    Hi Michelle, Sure look forward to these posts on Saturday! Thank you. I’m in the 24/7 category. I feel so double minded these days. Let me explain…a part of me had enough about a year ago and said no more..somethings going to change….it’s okay for me to be me, have a voice. I am not responsible for other people’s lives and reactions. A door closed on certain relational coping mechanisms that were dishonest to both myself and others: doing things out of obligation, avoiding or telling half truths to get out of doing things I really just didn’t want to. So my life has changed a lot but coping in a new honest way is very difficult for me. My husband and certain members of my family/circle of friends don’t like it and I find I have so many all or nothing thinking scripts running around now, or maybe I’m just recognizing them more? Early on in my life I learned incorrectly that conflict leads to death of relationship (my parents split when I was 13 after many vocal arguments.) My coping by trying to be what people needed me to be kept the peace and kept my world ‘safe.’ The problem is that even though I know this is hogwash my patterns are so ingrained I feel exposed and raw without the coping mechanisms. Anyway, thanks for being a light in the darkness. You give me a lot of hope that things can change for me. 🙂

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  2. Suzanne July 16, 2011

    I had lots of good chuckles reading this great article, Michelle. Less than a year ago, every one of the reactions you explored were MINE! It really made me feel wonderful about my progress so far to realize that I can now do these kinds of explorations for myself when I find myself going to any of these all or nothing thoughts and starting to feel the anxiety that they trigger. I am so grateful for that new ability to help myself instead of reverting to the old harmful coping strategies.

    But I felt what I thought of as an odd trigger-reaction to your statement about your own present “anxiety level … and scary, critical thoughts.” I immediately thought, “What? Michelle HAS those?!!” and a part of me (yes, I know, the good old DS) got scared to death that here I am, putting my faith in your process and even YOU still have anxiety and scary, critical thoughts?!

    So, I know you’ll be proud of me for this: My adult brain kicked in just as quickly with a big AHA—could it be that the sad little helpless self that’s left in me is still secretly hoping that “healing” means never having to feel anxious or scared again? I know I’ve thought a lot about this and read a lot that you’ve written on this already, Michelle, but—and this is something that I love about these newsletter articles—sometimes it takes just a little different way of looking at the same thing to make it completely evident to me. This strange reaction today immediately led me to the thought that, of course Michelle has fears and anxiety—she’s human, isn’t she. And the reality of that now seems very comforting and reassuring to me. After my initial child’s brain thought, the fact that the lady’s reaction actually triggered a moment of dis-ease for you, and that you simply “quickly shook it off,” was suddenly a huge inspiration. I’ve experienced this often enough in the past year, thanks to what I’ve learned from you engaging in this process, that I know I can look forward to the day when having my parade sprinkled on (or even poured on…) will have as little impact on me as it did on you in this article. Yay!

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  3. Anna July 16, 2011

    My husband cut his hand with a table saw and had stitches last week. Even though I told him to keep the stitches in for a week (I’m a nurse and the doc said the same) he proceeded to take his OWN stitches out before the week was up. When his wound opened up he was quite distraught and blamed me for not taking better care of him. I had the hardest time not accepting his blame and really had to talk for a long time to myself about this as he was quite unrelenting about it being my fault! I’m struggling to break free of co-dependency and all or nothing thinking. Michelle thanks so much for your articles. I find the blog posts very helpful as well!!

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  4. Kirsten July 18, 2011

    Thank you as always for an awesome post. I realize the importance of catching all or nothing thinking- but find it so hard to remember sometimes in the moment. So reading your posts really helps, even if we don’t always reply to them we are watching, reading, listening!!

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  5. Wendy Sirges July 19, 2011

    Michelle,
    I am sorry that i did not get to reading this earlier as the weeks have gotten away from me. It’s funny that after a crazy couple of weeks that i come to read about all or nothing thinking. If i think a back to everything that went on from work to personal life how much of “all or nothing” thinking i did. Not only was it about people that I came across in my adventures throughout the week but objects…yes, objects. For a while now i our continuious miss fortune with vehicles our Van is on the tipping scale of “is it still safe to drive?” or “should we just cut our losses and park it?” then on top of it came the big bombshell….here is the all or nothing; we discover a coolant leak under the car…..AHHHHH! it’s going to get into the wrong parts of the engine and the car is going to die and it’s going to cost and arm and a leg to fix and we just cant do it. haaa haa we havent even taken it to the shop to be looked at. well while we wait for the verdict to determine the fate of the car out comes the irrational thinking. we are doomed. we have nothing but bad luck with cars. it’s just going to keep happening. We must, absolutely just go ahead by two almost brand new cars that as far as we know have no problems to start off with (neither did the car) and on top of that take on a huge loan. (let me remind you we have no money to get the cars fixed.) This way we will never have any problems with our cars again. these are going to be super immortal magical cars that will need no insurance, no gas and no regular maintenance. haa haa who were we kidding. so in my head it was that there was no option to get the car fixed and keep up on it. it’s funny how you automatically feel your back is up against a wall. this all went along with many other “all or nothing” situations in the past few weeks. I am new to reading your wonderful articles and learning about all or nothing thinking and I want to thank you for blog this week and I think my week would not have been as horrible as i made it out to be if i just stepped back for a few minutes to reassess my thoughts. sending you lots of hugs and sunshine.

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