Your brain is amazing. Your brain controls your memory, motor skills, vision, digestion, breathing; it’s basically in charge of every process in your body. It’s not just amazing, it’s completely mind-blowing. Your brain runs the whole show, BUT when it comes to your thoughts, your brain is not so trustworthy which means—
You don’t have to believe everything you think.
We often create irrational assumptions and belief patterns that can distort our thinking. One of those cognitive distortions is called dichotomous thinking; what I like to call all-or-nothing thinking. (If you have Rebound and want to read a little more about cognitive distortions, check out page 48!). This type of distortion occurs when you tend to view situations as either/or categories:
Dichotomous thinking is when you see something as an absolute versus allowing room for all the shades of gray.
Intentional Thought or Habit?
I, myself have engaged in plenty of all-or-nothing thinking over the years. One of the silly ways I got stuck in all-or-nothing thinking used to happen every time I went out to eat. Whenever I ate out, I scoured the menu, going back-and-forth, trying to figure out what to order. I would make my choice and as soon as everyone’s food arrived, I immediately had “meal-order-remorse”. And when I say every time, I mean EVERY TIME. It made my Mom and sister crazy.
I somehow got it in my head that there was a singular perfect choice to make, and yet somehow, I always managed to make the wrong choice. From my childhood well into my 20’s (OK, maybe 30’s) I struggled with this until I got so fed up with myself that I decided to do something about it. I finally realized that this ridiculous all-or-nothing thinking about ordering food was just a habit that I could break.
“90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by your external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” —Shawn Actor
The problem wasn’t the food I ordered; it was the way my brain was processing the situation. Your thinking patterns become habits that you aren’t even aware of. This type of thinking can impact every facet of your life, but one of the biggest ways I see it show up in sport, is in how you perceive mistakes and how you are choosing to define success. People that have perfectionist tendencies can tend towards this type of thinking.
Flaws in the Formula
With all-or-nothing thinking, it’s as if you have created a formula that you must abide by: if this then that.
- If I lose/don’t PR/get beat, I am a failure.
- If I make a mistake, I’m not good enough and I should quit.
- If I don’t feel good during warm up, I’m going to perform poorly.
- If I can’t reach this goal, I suck.
- If I hurt someone’s feelings, I’m a horrible person.
- If I don’t pick the perfect meal, my whole dinner is ruined.
You get the point. All-or-nothing thinking is full of “shoulds” and shame. It’s inaccurate and it’s dangerous. It’s extremely limiting and can wreak havoc on your mental health and your performance. It robs you of your motivation and confidence and prevents you from seeking solutions. It prevents you from taking personal responsibly for the truth, disallowing you to be able to learn, improve, and grow from the experience. It’s icky, so let’s do something about it.
All-or-Nothing Mental Training Drill
We spend SO MUCH TIME learning about SO MANY THINGS and how often is it that you take some time to learn about yourself? It’s time to look under the hood because those habits— how you think— influences your reality. If you’re ready to explore your all-or-nothing thinking, here’s a mental training drill for you:
Notice when you tend to engage in all-or-nothing thinking.
Choose 1-2 weeks to really focus on understanding when you engage in this thinking pattern. Grab a notebook, and during that 1-2 week period, jot down the moments you find yourself triggered into all-or-nothing thinking. A clue is when you hear yourself using words like “good/bad” and “always/never”. In your notebook, write down: the situation, your all-or-nothing thought, and how you felt in the moment.
Identify your either/or outcomes.
Remember that you don’t have to believe everything your brain tells you. When you engage in this cognitive distortion you are usually locked into one of two outcomes. After you jot down your situation, thought, and feeling— write out the two outcomes you are presuming will occur. For example:
- You make a mistake that impacts your performance.
- I’m not good enough and I should quit.
- Frustrated, angry, upset
Two presumed outcomes:
- If I make a mistake, I’m bad and I should quit.
- If I don’t make a mistake, I’m good and I deserve to stay.
Is there another way to think about this?
It’s time to explore the gray. Now that you have recognized your two presumed outcomes, see if you can identify three other possible outcomes. For example:
Three other possible outcomes:
- I made a mistake, and it sucks, but now I know what I need to do next time.
- I made a mistake and I still deserve to be here.
- I made a mistake and aliens will want to steal my brain to study it and discover see humans can be SO BAD at things.
Let me explain that last one.
I like to throw a fun one in the mix because sometimes coming up with something outrageous actually provides some levity, which can give you the psychological distance you need to gain some perspective.
Now— between all five outcomes, which is the most likely outcome? Part of working through a cognitive distortion is to begin identifying other possibilities. This will help you recognize the ways in which your thinking has become an automatic thought pattern, or habit. Just like if you were trying to change your swing or learn a new technique; it takes practice. The more you do this, the better you will get at identifying any thinking patterns that might be self-sabotaging. Remember that you don’t always have to believe everything you think!