Not only a line in a song from the most perfect 90’s boy band, O-Town, (discard the Westlife cover) but it is also one of the main ways we can distort thoughts and events. All or nothing thinking has been, and still is, my biggest enemy along with guilt.
It often comes with magnifying – saying things ‘always’ or ‘never’ happen. This way of all or nothing thinking is very engrained in my thought patterns and habits. For example, as I’ve been thinking what to write, I said to myself, ‘with me it’s ALWAYS complete open book or I’m on lock down’. This statement isn’t, and can’t possibly be, true. Humans are complex beings, and I know I experience gradients, but when I’m talking to myself I say those things, this is how / what I am.
While there are some benefits to being this way – throwing myself completely into a project for example – it can be very harmful to both my productivity and relationships. Speaking artistically, it definitely halted my development and ability to accept and adapt to criticism both constructive and not. This is a vital part of growing, being able to hear criticism, pick out the truths or useful parts, decide if you believe it’s important, and then move forward with those words as weapons for improvement and development. Immersing yourself in something isn’t a bad thing: keep in mind I’m talking about the extreme ends of the scale. I would believe what I’m doing was 100% perfect, unquestionable – it would blind me to mistakes, harden me to change, leaving me unable to adapt, and become fiercely defensive. Creatively I was dead in the water. It would mean if someone offered even very polite, helpful critique I would react in one of two ways: 1) decide they were mean and horrible, shut down on them or 2) write off my work completely. None of it useful, mostly resulting in me and another person feeling terrible.
This is also something I experience(d) in my personal life. I used to wear my heart completely on my sleeve, be an open book to anyone willing to read. This lead to an awful lot of heart break and unrealistic expectations. After feeling so crushed more than once I developed this, ‘one strike and you’re out!’ mentality, making me difficult to be honest with because if someone was, and I was hurt, I dealt with it by completely shutting them out. I stopped seeing gradients in others – they were either good or bad, no in-between.
I had done this for a long time while being depressed, and strangely my panic attacks were the thing that made me aware of this behaviour. I started to read about cognitive behavioural therapy, and the ways we distort reality and build negative thought patterns. I realised I could identify heavily with a few. I will add my first reaction wasn’t a measured or rational one, it was to not care too much about things, to actively not connect fully, and to become indecisive, second guessing myself at every stage, entering everything nervously and half-heartedly.
I am much better at recognising when I’m starting to become intense and immersed, or disconnected and shut down, and responding to that it a more measured way. It took a lot of writing thoughts down and talking back to them like I would to someone else, and pushing though the fear and awkwardness and talking it through with another person, before I got better at it. I’m still learning now. I still pull the shutters down when people become aggressive or raise their voices – protecting me, but often worsening the situation because I’m unresponsive.
On the plus side, I now (mostly) enjoy and seek out other peoples input (I changed the way I see critique) when working. I have a stronger sense of who I am and what I want my work to be so I don’t just abandon things. Same with relationships, I feel more comfortable in myself than I’ve ever been. It’s made me more understanding and adaptable but at times able to be completely unapologetic for good decisions I’ve made.
I’d be interested to hear if any of you identify with these thoughts or feelings, or have no experience of what I’m talking about. Charly x