All or nothing thinking is harmful in a number of ways. It limits a whole world of possibilities by trying to force everything into one of two polar extremes. It creates unattainable expectations, for example: if I’m not absolutely perfect at everything, I must be an abject failure. Or, when the unrealistic ideal of perfection can’t be realized, I take it as proof I am worthless, unskilled, undisciplined, or [insert your favourite derogatory label here].
I’ve had my fair share of experience with all-or-nothing thinking and as I worked through all my options for managing my fibromyalgia it became a key focus for shifting to a healthier mindset. One of the most difficult areas for me was actually one of the most common: food, weight loss and exercise. A few years after my fibromyalgia diagnosis I actually developed an eating disorder, so intense and disruptive was my all-or-nothing thinking around food. I had two switches: on, or off. Black or white. All or nothing. I was either in extreme caloric restriction mode where I was permitted to have almost nothing. Or, I had to eat everything in the house. And, I had to eat it now, because I was never again going to be able to eat this thing. It was a vicious cycle.
All or Nothing Thinking and Fibromyalgia
If you’ve ever engaged in all-or-nothing thinking, or taken a black-and-white stance on any issue, and you also have fibromyalgia… there is a connection. Psychologists know there is a link between all-or-nothing thinking, depression, and trauma. We know there is a link between fibromyalgia and trauma, and that many people with fibromyalgia also become depressed. Welcome to the merry-go-round of all-or-nothing thinking.
How do you tell if you dabble in this dark and dangerous frame of mind? Watch your thoughts and your verbal language for the following words:
Or these kinds of sentences:
“I hurt today: I will always hurt this much!”
“I can’t do this today: I will never be able to do it again!”
More Than Black and White
When I changed careers and left journalism after fifteen years and started working in government communications, I was blown away by how much grey there was in the world. I don’t mean dull, downtrodden grey like angry clouds before a thunderstorm. No, I mean the large swath of truths between the white and the black. As a reporter, I’d been thriving in the conflict-riddled world of black and white for a long time. It either is, or it isn’t. No in between. I revelled in this new grey world, full of possibility and interpretation and balance. And I used this analogy to heal from my unhealthy dependence on all-or-nothing thinking. You can too.
Four Ways to Conquer Crazy All or Nothing Thinking
- Replace “or” with “and”. Open up to the possibilities that there is room for both positive and negative in the same space.
Instead of expecting that your day must be either bad or good, ‘I had a terrible day’, becomes ‘I had a lot of pain today and I enjoyed the visit from my friend.’ Or, ‘I had no energy to exercise today and I’m going to try again tomorrow.’
- Judge your self-worth on more than achievements. You might be bad at chess, or math, or music, or skiing, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. What you achieve and how you perform are things that are in constant ebb and flow. If you tie up your self-worth in them you’re going to get dizzy – and you’re giving yourself short shrift. You are more than your performance.
- Learn to see the grey. You have many more choices than whether to wear black or white. Whether you drink coffee or tea. You can choose burgundy or tan, or orange juice or a coconut matcha latte. There’s a whole world of possibility that exists between doing a 7-hour hike up the mountainside and staying home in bed. See it, look for the gems in the grey space between the black and white.
- Let go of perfection. Perfection is a myth, after all. Give yourself credit for less than perfect. Give yourself credit for showing up. You likely don’t expect perfection of others, so let go of expecting perfection in yourself.
What happens in the mind sets the stage for what happens in the body. All or nothing thinking promotes a state of stress. There’s a whole lot less stress in embracing the grey between the polar extremes of black and white. And when there’s lower stress, there’s a lower inflammatory response. And a lower inflammatory response leads to reduced symptoms of fibromyalgia.