All or Nothing – Living in Extremes

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I heard you speak at a conference about a limited thinking and behaviour pattern, that from memory you called all/nothing thinking. Can you please share more about this and what to do if this is how I think? – D Woolf, Pretoria, South Africa

All or nothing thinking, also known as black and white and either/or thinking, is a cognitive behavioural style that is expressed in our thinking, speaking, feeling, choosing and acting. You may intentionally choose to use this style for different contexts and activities, or it could be an overused pattern outside your awareness that dominates your thinking and your life.

How would you know if this is a dominant pattern for you?

You delay starting projects, discussions, emails, documents, study, cleaning your house, mowing your lawn, having sex, etc; unless you can complete all of the activity in one go.

You may do nothing of a particular task until you either have to, or can get it all done. You feel the fatigue of “pulling all nighters” (or at least your staff does!). You often find yourself blocking out all other activities and distractions to fully immerse all of yourself in just one task, while other important issues and activities accumulate around you. All or nothing thinking is an inherent trait of procrastination.

You feel in conflict, flipping back and forth as you oscillate emotionally and energetically between extremes; feeling torn, conflicted and wretched. You experience massive highs and extreme lows. Perhaps you feel you are “dammed if you do or dammed if you don’t”. Either or thinking is the foundation of a “double bind” and an ingredient in mania, depression and schizophrenia.

You hear yourself or others arguing a point; you hear yourself keep on going and going and going some more, until you are satisfied that others fully, 100% agree or at least understand you. (I know you have never done this…) Maybe you have been told you are rigid in your thinking. Possibly you take all the variables another offers you, and proudly distill them into two clear, distinct and diametrically opposed categories, creating in your mind clarity out of all elements. You hear yourself state, “All of that may be true, but in reality you either do this or that…”

You have to abstain or avoid all together the sweet indulgences of life. If you open a packet of chips you will not be able to have just one or two. If you attempt to leave an opened packet of chocolate biscuits in your cupboard or ice cream in your freezer, you will finish off the whole packet before daybreak (I of course have never done this!) The same may be true about drinking, smoking, having sex, gambling etc. All or nothing thinking is a requirement for binge eating and drinking, addictions and compulsions.

Maybe you set yourself a goal, only to sabotage momentum and success. Jim had not been doing any physical activity for several years and resolved to himself that it was “time to get into shape”. He identified what he believed to be his ideal strategy, concluding he would work-out six days of the week and give himself Sunday as a rest day.

With great anticipation and motivation, Jim declared he would start the next Monday morning. Monday arrived, something unexpected happened; Jim was unable to work out. Tuesday clocked around, and Jim thought to himself “well…there is no point in starting today, as I can only now work out five days and I will never achieve my goal unless I am working out six days”. As a result, Jim did nothing in terms of his fitness for the next five days, only to promise himself, “Ill start again next Monday…” (Sound familiar?) All or nothing thinking inhibits progress and momentum.

Have you ever eaten something and had a bad feeling after, only to find subsequent times you consume that same food you get a bad reaction? Perhaps when you are around pollen or dust you start sneezing and your nose begins dripping. Maybe you get car or seasick. Perhaps you find you stutter or have involuntary movements in your arms and legs. Maybe you once got frightened by a mouse and now have a phobia about them. All or nothing can become so ingrained, it can become a neurological and biological response and can contribute to allergic reactions, phobias, stuttering, panic attacks, asthma, cancer, sexual dysfunctions, anorexia, bulimia, auto-immune disease, autism, etc.

Maybe you believe that you and your family and friends of your same religion, are the only ones who will go to heaven and everybody else will go to hell. Perhaps you believe all Muslims are terrorists or at least dangerous. You might believe that anybody who believes in God, but is not assigned to formal religion, must be into new age mysticism or a cult. All or nothing thinking is a key to fanaticism, idealism, racism, fundamentalism, elitism, and supremacy.

Perhaps your loved one does not respond to your phone call, email, or text message within 10 minutes; you conclude that he or she does not love you. Perhaps you find yourself trying to adhere to or accusing yourself and others of “right and wrong” behaviour. Maybe your partner notices the beauty in another man or woman and you accuse them of being unfaithful. Maybe you are on a fourth date with a man or woman who you have decided is pure perfection. You are starting to truly adore them, all of their mannerisms, their laugh and their way of being. But on this date, you find a fault and you never date them again. All or nothing contributes to criticism, judgment, ego separation, abuse, arguments and conflict in relationships.

Conceptually, all or nothing thinking creates artificial either/or dichotomies and polarities. When this pattern is in play, we are only able to see, hear, feel or think in terms of black and white. We are unable to perceive degrees or shades of black, white or grey (incremental and finer distinctions). Some every day examples include concepts such as: love/hate, good/bad, success/failure, rich/poor, light/dark, win/loose, us/them, etc.

When thinking in this way we are forced to make gross generalisations in order to fit all the stimulus data and input into only two categories. Using success/failure as an example; Gabby achieved 92% in her assignment, however because she did not achieve 100%, Gabby classified her 92% result as a failure.

Despite Gabby being in the Top 3% of the UK for this area of study and the significant recognition she gained from her Professors, family and friends, Gabby’s all or nothing thinking generalised not only that she had “failed” her assignment, but that she was a failure in her entire life. All or nothing is a key factor in obsessional perfectionism.

Where does all or nothing patterning come from?

Black and white thinking is a natural and essential stage of our cognitive emotional development. Piaget defined this as the concrete stage of thinking; your ability to separate and distinguish large categories. Over time a child will begin to see, hear and feel, and think in finer and finer distinctions and eventually most will start to see grey and perceive a continuum.

If all or nothing is currently a dominant style where you have little or even no flexibility to think in continuums, perhaps you have experienced or perceived some form of trauma and/or illness that reverted your adult brain into sorting for safety and fight/flight in order to survive. Neurological patterning such as Autism, Aspergers, ADHD, etc, also will contribute to black and white and either/or thinking.

How do I get rid of all or nothing thinking?

That question, in and of itself, is an all or nothing question!

All or nothing thinking is not a bad or even un-useful thinking pattern. It is not something to eliminate, as there are certain contexts where black/white, all/nothing thinking is a critical ability to possess. Such as; dangerous or life threatening situations of safety and survival, for many functions in society, such as road rules, taxes, engineering, accounting, IT, science, etc.

In fact, somebody who does not have the ability to think in black/white terms, may have difficulty in actually making concrete choices and decisions, screening out distractions and following rules.

Problems can arise when we do not also have the flexibility to think in both/and terms AND in a continuum or with multi-dimensionality.

What are both/and, continuum thinking and multi-dimensionality?

Both and thinking, or what we might call simultaneous thinking, is simply being able to hold seeming oppositional polarities in mind, without resistance or conflict. For example, loving and hating, or maybe success and failure, simultaneously. Perhaps it is being able to keep multiple activities in your life at the same time; for example, starting a new relationship with a lover and continuing to participate in your other core relationships.

“The true mark of genius and intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at one time.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Some questions to explore when you experience ideas, activities, and options in polarity, may include:

How could both of these be true?
How could I experience both /and?
What would I need to believe, think or feel to be able to experience both?
If I rise above this seeming paradox, what is the higher or bigger perspective?
What choices and decisions would I need to make to experience both/and?
What would I need to accept to experience both/and?

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

Continuum thinking is being able to see, hear, think or feel a scale and to perceive fine distinctions along such a scale. I have been using the metaphor of being able to discern different shades of grey, rather than only seeing black or white. Similarly, if you have ever heard somebody learning to play a piano, you have heard him or her practicing scales. As a student takes one note at a time, their hands will go up and down the piano as they attune their fingers and ears to these finer distinctions of each note and its sound.

The same is true for our emotional instrument. As we start to feel the differences we can discern a range of emotions. Instead of just being happy or sad, we can distinguish the range of emotions in between and beyond. We can also discern the range of a specific emotion. For example, you may scale your anger, from annoyance, frustration, mild anger, calm anger, passionate anger, aggression, to rage.

In planning, continuum thinking enables us to see a project, task or activity in incremental steps and stages, from start to middle all the way to successful completion. We will be able to see micro-steps as part of those stages, and smaller steps again. The degree to which you will be able to see steps and stages, will also depend upon the level of detail and specificity that you like and can achieve.

In developing new skills, capacities and talent, continuum thinking supports us to experience development as a process, not something that occurs in one massive leap. We do not move from incompetent to competent or from competency to mastery in a blink, or without having to go through essential stages. As we are able to see development and learning as process and then the steps and stages, it helps us to align realistic expectations, clarify our intentions for each specific step/stage and allows us to count, acknowledge and celebrate the stages. Without being able to see performance in degrees and a scale, you will have difficulty counting and validating your children, loved ones and team members. You will be ineffective at giving constructive and useful feedback.

As you think about the process you went through to learn to run, you know as a baby you first had to learn to roll over, sit up, pull yourself up, crawl, stand, walk – all before you could run. All of us had somebody nearby who celebrated each stage either by clapping, cheering or with simple words. Each time we heard this acknowledgement, our body took it as feedback that we were on the right track, and that we could move onto the next step or stage. Being able to know that a stage is achieved allows us to focus on the next stage, thereby developing momentum, achieving progress and moving towards success and fulfillment.

You may see a continuum thinker gesturing as they speak with their hands, as they mark out the steps and stages. They will use few generalisations, or extreme absolute statements, as those tend to come from black and white thinking.

You will hear them evaluate their success in degrees and percentages e.g. “I am 65% of my way there”, perhaps “I am making progress”, may be “I have made a start”.

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Continuum thinkers mostly feel like they have a balanced life, neither living in excess or limitation, nor in extremes unless intentionally embarking upon an adventure. They will be able to start a task or project well ahead of deadline and “chip away” at it till it is complete.

They will relish being present in a given moment, while simultaneously knowing other activities and facets of their life are a work in progress. They can freely enjoy an experience for the experience sake, without needing to categorise it and compare it or others.

Their physiology and health mostly flow, as they usually experience healthy levels of stress and tension, avoiding the stress that most people feel from pressure, conflict, fatigue and extremes we can be pushed to by all or nothing thinking.

Multi-dimensionality is being able to think simultaneously in multiple dimensions. “The principle of multi-dimensionality, maintains that the opposing tendencies not only co-exist and interact, but also form a complementary relationship”. (Systems Thinking, Gharenjedaghi, 1999)

A multi-dimensional experiencer will find the interconnectedness of multiple systems. For example they do not dichotomise work and play, public personality and private personality, self and other, the planet and humans, etc. They will see each system and process in both its individual state and be able to see and experience its inter-connectedness and essential nature to each other and the whole.

For example, a multi-dimensional does not think of human life as just a body or a body and a mind. They think of the inter-relationship between mind, body, emotions, energy, and spirit, in relationship to the planet and the planet to the universe, etc. They will define themselves co-existing and interrelating from and through all dimensions of space, matter and time (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th etc).

With the ability to distinguish the complementary relationship of seemingly oppositional forces or tendencies, a multi-dimensional will experience a sense of relative harmony, acceptance and understanding, while an all or nothing thinker may categorise the same scenario as a breakthrough, revelation, or a disaster or crisis.

What are the steps to developing flexibility?

  • Bring conscious awareness to your all or nothing, either/or thinking.
  • Discover the contexts where you are most seduced to thinking and acting in these ways.
  • Evaluate does this pattern serve you in this context? Does it give you maximum choice and internal freedom in this context?
  • Begin the process of challenging yourself to think in both/and terms.
  • Identify tasks, activities and development opportunities and break down into incremental steps.
  • Count and recognise the smallest improvements of yourselves being able to see and use these distinctions.

At risk of trying to give you the ALL on all/nothing thinking, continuum thinking and multi-dimensionality, I am going to stop here!

The fastest way to develop this flexibility is to work with a person who has expertise in facilitating this type of development and is moving towards mastery in this area in themselves. Because this pattern is usually outside of conscious awareness, a skilled facilitator will quickly hear you and see you doing it and be able to interrupt your pattern and help you develop new choices in the way you think, feel, speak and act.

You can enjoy a sense of liberation and personal freedom!

End Note.

In Neuro-Semantic terms, All/Nothing Thinking Style – Continuum ThinkingMulti-Dimensionality is a Meta-Program; referred to as our Classification Scale. It is just one Meta-Program of more than 60 different Meta-Programs that have been identified thus far. To learn more about Meta-Program see Figuring Out People, Reading People Using Meta-Programs (Hall and Boddenhamer, 2005)

Michelle Duval

As a coach, speaker and writer, Michelle Duval is as a pioneer into new forms of learning. She helped found the field of professional coaching in Australia in 1997 and became a leading voice, forging developmental and transformational coaching worldwide. She has co-authored two international handbooks on coaching, developed coaching psychology models used by professional coaches globally, and trained and certified executive, business and personal coaches in more than 35 countries. Michelle is the founder of Equilibrio, Actualise Daily, Excelerate Coach Mentoring and Fingeprint4Success. Michelle’s personal specialty as a coach is working with entrepreneurs, thought leaders, CEOs, and creative artists such as writers, producers, and actors. As a researcher Michelle led a world first study into the attitudes and motivations of Australia's most successful entreprenuers. Birthed out of her own personal experience with an aggressive life threatening brain disease, Michelle's personal cause and mission is working with otherwise 'incurable' diseases by developing advanced coaching methodologies and the latest discoveries in neuroscience to facilitate well-being and even complete recovery.

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