How an “All or Nothing” Attitude Brings You Down and What To Do About it

After an especially trying SocialEyes Together® SEL group, discouraged by our students’ insufficient progress, I dumped my frustration on my co-leader, Jean.

Emily had spent 45 minutes intermittently spewing negativity like a surprise hailstorm and Reggie was a master at that stealth distraction executed below adult radar detection that is the bane of every teacher’s existence. You never actually catch them in the act and others get in trouble for reacting to their antics. I pulled out my best practices for addressing these behaviors to no avail.

I felt like a failure.

“Yeah, Emily and Reggie had a tough day” Jean conceded. “But what about Lizzy? She was all in today offering her perspective, taking risks, and letting herself be vulnerable. And Alisha? Her imagination kicked in big time. She connected to the other kids, even giving them “gifts” to make them look good on stage. Did you see Andrew during the Slow Breath Practice©? He was focused and calm for FIVE minutes.”

In my myopic assessment, I overlooked those successes.

How often do we look at what didn’t go our way, what didn’t go according to plan, and dismiss all the progress right before our eyes? Life is hardly ever “all or nothing”.

The “all or nothing” mindset leaves no room for nuance.

And life is colored with grey areas. This kind of thinking is a cognitive distortion that polarizes your options and often leaves you empty-handed when there’s still lots to hold on to.

Some of this thinking has to do with a deficit of resilience. When we’re resilient, we meet obstacles, defeats, and setbacks with a perspective that carries us through the tough times. Instead of “I ate the pizza so now my diet is blown up. I might as well eat the whole cake too.” You could think, “I ate the pizza. Now it’s time to get back on track.”

Some of this thinking is about perfection. “If I can’t do it flawlessly, I’m not doing it.” or “I messed up! I’m a failure.” Yet by nature, we are imperfect.

Too bad our culture devalues imperfection. Check out the synonyms you’ll find in a quick google search: immature, incomplete, sketchy, junk, limited, defective, dud… the list goes on and doesn’t get any prettier.

The “perfect” synonyms are pretty high and mighty: developed, healthy, pure, unblemished, moral. Yikes! Who wouldn’t want to hide their “defective” parts?

Accepting the imperfections, the gray areas, the states of indecision, opens up a whole world of colorful, kind places to rest your weary self. In between “all” or “nothing” is where most of life takes place. Embracing your unfinished self builds compassionate resilience. You are a work in progress: perfectly imperfect.

(All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.)

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