Friday, 23 September 2016

All or Nothing Thinking

Have you ever thought about what happens when we use words like always, never or everybody?

For example:
Everything has gone wrong today”
“Why can’t I do this when everybody else can?”
“Women / men always......”

Words like these are often a sign that you are doing “all or nothing thinking”. They imply “this is the way it is”. They make things absolute, definite. They frequently leave you with a sense of getting it wrong, of criticising yourself or others. And, they are almost never true (Really? Everything has gone wrong? What about breathing?!). Yet we can go on to base the rest of our day, or life, on this statement that isn’t true.

For example, a friend of mine decided to give up smoking. She didn’t smoke for 3 months, then had a cigarette after a difficult day. Immediately afterwards she said to herself: “I knew I would never be able to give up, I always ruin things for myself .......” If she had continued down that line of thought she would have felt terrible, had another cigarette because she had already failed........ and returned to smoking.

Fortunately she noticed what she was saying and instead asked herself “Is that really true?” She then noticed that for 3 whole months she hadn’t smoked, and that she had only spent 5 minutes smoking. Instead she decided to say to herself “I know I can give up smoking, I have done it for 3 months already so of course I can do it again!” She stopped using her “always” and “never” sentences, chose to focus on the 3 months rather than the 5 minutes, and decided to go back to being a non-smoker. Which she still is!

All or nothing thinking can get us into all kinds of problems. It has been shown to be a key element in anxiety and depression, for example. So whenever you hear yourself use one of these “all or nothing” words, just ask yourself “Is that statement really true?” Most of the time (but not always, of course!!) you will find it is not. Then that frees you up to look for other evidence, possibilities, or ways of understanding the situation. And noticing that can change the rest of your day.... or even your life.

All or nothing thinking is a bit like living in a black and white world, rather than enjoying the full range of beautiful colours around us. Which world would you rather live in?

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