The holidays often bring up all-or-nothing thinking and doing for folks, especially around health—food, exercise, and alcohol are at the center of holiday festivities, whether we’re together or alone together in a pandemic.
All-or-nothing thinking and doing can arise from many parts of ourselves and our lives. Here I briefly outline possible origins of all-or-nothing thinking and offer some questions to inspire new thinking and experiences in each origin area. Know this list is by no means exhaustive.
Trauma & Nervous System Dysregulation
When our autonomic nervous system, which operates without our conscious awareness, believes we’re in danger, it compels us to respond to that danger. This may be an acute stressor or trauma or it maybe something more long-lasting. In either case, our physiology can get stuck in one or more stages of self-preservation—fight or flight and/or freeze/shut down—and this dysregulation leaves us largely disconnected from our “thinking brain.” When our thinking brain is offline, it’s difficult to see shades of grey (or to see anything very clearly). Survival requires the immediate all-or-nothing response. Assuming we’re safe in the moment, the either/or, right/wrong, black/white, dualistic perspective offers us only a false sense of clarity and safety. This all or nothing thinking is a coping mechanism that probably served us at some point, but leaves us with few options and less flexibility now.
My invitation: Learn about the nervous system and get to know your unique stress physiology and responses. This will support you in recognizing if/when your thinking brain is offline and your self-protective instincts are running the all-or-nothing show. Building capacity in your nervous system through somatic practices, movement, breath work, coaching, or nervous system education gradually allows you rewire the automatic responses and make more conscious, self-aware choices. This also cultivates a deeper connection with your body and her cues, which offers powerful insights to support higher-order thinking.
There are always beliefs about ourselves and the world beneath our thinking and doing. There are numerous beliefs that may be driving our all-or-nothing thinking. For me an old belief about equating goodness with perfection led me to all-or-nothing thinking. Beliefs, remember, are neither true nor false, but they are certainly empowering or limiting in our lives.
My invitation: Explore your beliefs that may be contributing to all-or-nothing thinking. Ask yourself powerful questions or work with a coach or therapist. I like to ponder this question, because it brings my focus to the empowering belief while simultaneously highlighting the underlying, limiting belief: What belief would I have to have to release this all-or-nothing thinking?
When all-or-nothing thinking revolves around food and exercise, self-image may be another area to consider. Body image, in particular, is connected to all-or-nothing thinking around our self-care and nourishment. When our self-image is tied up with how and what we eat, how much we exercise, how much we weigh, or what our body is shaped like, we are bound to engage in more of this type of thinking.
My invitation: This circles us back to our beliefs, specifically about ourselves and our bodies. Beliefs work with a therapist or coach can provide insights and awareness into how our self-image may be impacting our all-or-nothing thinking tendencies. Get curious and ask powerful questions here, too: What possibilities might exist if I wholeheartedly loved and approved of myself?
What’s most important to you? I value and strive for excellence, which is not a bad thing, but it can become a thorn in my side if I let it cross into the realm of perfectionism (also a trauma response, by the way). Perfectionism then leads to all-or-nothing thinking. Your values, like mine, may be a window into your thought process.
My invitation: In what ways might your values both serve and limit your thinking?
Cultural and Collective Influence
We do not survive or thrive in isolation. We’re constantly bombarded with the messages of our patriarchal culture and the media that it feeds about what is right or wrong, good or bad, especially when it comes to our health and appearance. We’re raised in families that have their own set of beliefs and trauma history, too.
My invitation: Give attention to what you consume and surround yourself with. Where do you notice messages of all or nothing thinking in the media? From your social feeds? From your friends and family?
All or nothing thinking is not an all or nothing concept. It exists on a continuum and has varying degrees of intensity and impact. If this kind of thinking is affecting your quality of life or your wellness please seek support.