Your brain wants to make your life easier. It creates rules, shortcuts, and ways of seeing the world in an attempt to simplify your life.
Some of those shortcuts are useful. Isn't it nice that your brain can intuitively sense when your matcha latte is too hot to drink?
But some of those simplifications are simply unhelpful. Psychologists call that way of thinking cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are a funhouse mirror way of thinking that keeps us from seeing the world as it is.
If you'd like a more official definition, PyschCentral defines cognitive distortions this way:
[A cognitive distortion] is an exaggerated pattern of thought that’s not based on facts. It consequently leads you to view things more negatively than they really are.
At this point, you're probably starting to connect some dots. Maybe you're telling yourself, "Ohhhhhh, so when someone doesn't message me back right away, and I assume they're mad at me...That's a cognitive distortion."
Oof. I've been there. And yes, you're right. That one's called catastrophizing.
There are all kinds of cognitive distortions, and I love talking about them. Maybe this will be a series at some point?
But we're getting really specific today. Let's talk about one of the thought patterns I hear all the time in the Inner Workout community: all-or-nothing thinking.
We are a self-care company, after all. Of course we're going to relate these concepts to our self-care and inner work. Before we make some connections, let's make sure we're on the same page about this type of thinking.
This mindset goes by many names. There's the name with what my dad would refer to as a 13-dollar word: dichotomous thinking. Binary thinking. Either/or thinking. Black or white thinking.
Just by using context clues, you're probably starting to suss out what this thinking pattern entails. All-or-nothing thinking is a v. common cognitive distortion that tells us there are only two options, two identities, or two ways to view a situation. There's nothing in between. No shades of gray to be had.
Sometimes we turn that thinking inwards: I'm either a great daughter, or I'm a terrible daughter.
Sometimes we turn that thinking outwards: That friend either cares about me, or they don't.
Sometimes we use that thinking to evaluate a situation: There's the "right" way, and the "wrong" way.
In my unscientific opinion, you're guaranteed to experience this negative thinking pattern if you're a perfectionist.
By definition, a perfectionist is someone with "excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations."
Those high standards can keep you from getting started if the conditions aren't precisely what you've decided they need to be. There are the "right" conditions—for moving your body, for writing, for making progress on your knitting project—or the "wrong" conditions.
There are no in-betweens. Textbook black-and-white thinking.
Those overly critical self-evaluations are music to your inner critic's ears. You tell yourself, "I'm a failure" for missing a day of meditating instead of celebrating the fact that meditation has become such a habit you notice when you miss a day.
As you can see, perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking are a disastrous duo that feed on each other. It's not all bad news, though. As you work to overcome all-or-nothing thinking, you'll also chip away at your perfectionism.
If you're like me, just learning about a concept doesn't do it for you. You need concrete examples. So let's look at how seeing things in extremes shows up in self-care and inner work.
Notice which examples feel familiar, and try to come up with some examples of your own. Ready?
At Inner Workout, we define self-care as listening within and responding in the most loving way possible. So all-or-nothing thinking may stop us from checking in with ourselves. Your inner critic might've convinced you that you have nothing of value to share. Or maybe that's not where you struggle. This mindset can also keep you from taking aligned action based on your inner wisdom.
Let's take a look at a few examples.
Turning that thinking inwards: I haven't earned self-care today because I'm a lazy slob. Hear that zero-sum thinking? You've made two categories for yourself—productive or lazy slob. And if you fall into the lazy slob category, welp, no self-care for you that day.
Turning that thinking outwards: Self-care is only possible for people like them. You know, the people with rich partners and no worries. Once again, you've created a dichotomy. There are the people who over there who can practice self-care. Then there's you all the way on the other side. Your life looks different, so, by your logic, self-care isn't possible.
Using that thinking to evaluate a situation: I only have two minutes to journal. That's not enough to do morning pages. Let me skip it. In your mind, there's only the "right" way and everything else, so you miss out on opportunities to take care when the "right" way isn't available.
How does either/or thinking get in the way of your self-care? It shows up differently for all of us, but the end result is the same. We don't practice self-care. We don't use the time and resources available to us. This mindset clouds our thinking so we can't see the opportunities in front of us.
Inner work is the work you do to become more of who you already are. It's a process of discovery, and, lemme tell you, all-or-nothing thinking loves to make its presence known in the process.
Curious what that looks like? I've got some not-so-hypotheticals.
Turning that thinking inwards: I haven't run a race yet, so I'm not a real runner. Even if running's not your thing, can you think of a time where you said you weren't a real fill-in-the-blank? There's some validation point—a title, a degree, a milestone, a certification—and you feel like your experience isn't valid until you reach it.
Turning that thinking outwards: They know what they're doing, and I know nothing. Annnnnnd we're back with two extremes. There's the binary of people who know everything and people who know nothing with no gradation in between. Similar to the previous example, this line of thinking invalidates what you do know, disconnecting you from your inner wisdom.
Using that thinking to evaluate a situation: I can't succeed, or I can't be the best. So I just won't start. I'm sure that thought sounds familiar to the perfectionists reading this. Logically, you know you can't get better without practice, but all-or-nothing thinking doesn't care about improving over time. It tricks you into believing that you can only be "good" or "bad".
As you can see with each of these examples, binary thinking keeps us from our inner work by discounting our inner wisdom, discouraging us in the process, or by keeping us from starting at all.
I've shared plenty of examples of how this mindset might impact you.
You might feel a sense of hopelessness that manifests as a "Why bother?" attitude.
You might skip your self-care because you don't have time to get it "right."
Maybe you're on the verge of burnout as you chase the next milestone, praying this will give you the sense of validation you're seeking.
Examples are useful to a point, but after a certain point you need to ask yourself, "How is all-or-nothing-thinking impacting me?"
Once you're aware of the impact, you're ready to make a change.
If you saw yourself in the examples I shared in this piece, I hope you'll take it as an invitation, not an attack. It's not just you. This kind of thinking is common, and it keeps you from giving and receiving the care you deserve.
Before you close this tab and continue with your day, choose one step you'll take to shift your relationship to all-or-nothing thinking.
You don't need to do this work alone. Through our app, newsletter, podcast, and articles like these, we're always creating resources to make well-being easier.