Avoiding the Pitfalls of All or Nothing Thinking

I invited Jesus into my heart and accepted his saving grace at an age so young I don’t remember the moment it happened. You could say I was born a believer the first time, having no need to be born again, as faith in the Almighty was as much a part of me as my brown eyes, dark hair, and skinny arms.

But my childhood was very different than my Tennessee friends who grew up in the Bible-belt, where they believed in the same God and attended the same churches as most of their classmates. In some respects, my family and I were outsiders in our community. 

I remember occasionally spotting cars with Jesus fish decals in parking lots and pointing them out to my parents. “Look, a Christian!” It was a thrill to see a member of our tribe amongst the sea of heathens, and, like an overzealous Jeep owner, we’d wave and honk when we witnessed one of our own out in the wild. I remember my first CD, Relient K’s self-titled album. I convinced my Mom to buy it for me, telling her they were a punk band but they were also believers. She looked at me skeptically. I said, “Really, they’re one of us!”

From our movies to our books to our politicians, holding the label Christian was of utmost importance. Like the Comics Code Authority of the 1950s, it signified cleanliness, but even more than that, holiness.

My upbringing led me to believe that people, places, events, philosophies, and religions all fit into a nice and simple binary reality.

Good or bad.

Clean or dirty.

In or out.

Doomed to fail or destined to succeed.

In fact, there’s a phrase for this: it’s called dualistic thinking. In psychology, it’s a cognitive distortion known as all or nothing thinking. Whatever you want to call it, I think fundamentalist Christianity lends itself well.

I won’t get into my religious deconstruction or reconstruction journey (still on it), but I will say I have come to recognize the risk inherent in this type of thinking. A vital part of becoming a Whole person is looking closely at everything you were handed as a child, including your faith tradition and the thought patterns that are a result of it; and asking yourself if these things are still helpful to you today. You might wind up exactly where you began, and that’s okay, but at some point you need to arrive there on your own accord. Or it’s not your own.

And sometimes, when you find a new path, a new way of thinking or living or believing, the synapses in your brain will say, but we’ve traveled this other path so many times. It’s even paved!

That’s what my brain was doing when I experienced my first panic attack a few months ago, when my anxiety reached debilitating levels, and I found myself spending three days under the covers in the fetal position. I spent four more days in the hospital. Then three weeks in an outpatient program.

All the while, I cashed in on my trusty all or nothing thinking quota.

If I’m not healthy, I reasoned, I’m sick. And if I’m not normal, I’m crazy. What if I never get better? What if I always feel like this? Knowing how impossible it would be to live in a state of panic forever, my thoughts turned to suicide–not a desire to complete suicide–rather a fear of death. Fear of no other option. Fear of always and never and forever. I started believing my medication was the thing making me anxious. Then I pulled a 180 and believed it was the only thing that could stop me from feeling anxious. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? (I don’t know what a nervous breakdown feels like, but I’d wager that this was it.)

But what was reality? The reality was that everything is temporary, panic attacks are terrifying and confusing, and most things in life land on a spectrum.

All or nothing thinking is dangerous because it doesn’t leave room for reality. For example, there are over seven billion people on this planet. At one point, I believed I would one day become the best basketball player in the world. Screw growth mindset. I wanted to be number one. Not even number two. The best. There are reasonable people out there who argue LeBron James is not the best player in the world. LeBron James! If there is even a 1% chance that is true, 13-year-old me was ripe for disappointment.

So I’ve decided my goal for myself is hopeful realism. That’s not to say I believe it’s unhealthy to have big dreams (you know, shoot for the moon and land amongst stars) or to believe in something you can’t see. But what if we were careful to be as realistic as possible with our thoughts and our words? How would that impact our expectations and beliefs about ourselves and others?

Maybe you would take note when you say things like, “I’ll never get promoted!” or “I’m always depressed!” or “I never get the last donut!”

Our minds can create full-blown stories that we inevitably start believing, in spite of the facts, if we don’t step back and think objectively about our thoughts and experiences.

Have you ever met someone who gave you a really bad first impression, then told yourself a story about them that you found impossible to shake–even after you discovered contradicting evidence? Brains are so good at telling stories and making sense of our experiences. So good, in fact, they can’t be left unchecked.

The way you think about other people is important. Even more important, though, is the way you think about yourself. Next time you hear yourself say never or always or forever, consider the facts, and try rephrasing it. The same way that the world’s conflicts, religions, and politics are rarely as black and white as we want to believe, there’s probably more gray to you than you realize.

And that, my friends, is good news.

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