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Why are you torturing yourself this way?

Mar 08, 2021


When what you are thinking does not match up with what is actually happening, you are guilty of committing a thinking error or cognitive distortion. And chances are, you won’t even realise that you are doing so.

But then how could you know? We have all been guilty of thinking errors, all of our lives and they become bad habits, however they are easily identified, should you make the effort to examine the way you are thinking and then begin to make the necessary steps to overcome those distortions.

The alternative is that we keep on making the same errors and find ourselves living with the stress and anxiety these habits will cause.

Researchers have identified 10 distinct thinking errors and one of the most destructive is `all or nothing thinking`. This erroneous way of thinking forces you to look at aspects of your life as either being totally perfect or a complete disaster, with nothing in-between.

Looking at life this way is compelling yourself to demand perfection and that the only alternative is failure. And as nobody wants failure then you become open to feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy when things don’t turn out to be as perfect as you wanted.

All or nothing thinking manifests itself in two distinct behaviours,

Firstly, you quit because you are failing to achieve perfection. Whether you are at work in the middle of a project or at home doing some DIY or even playing a sport, your unreasonable demand for perfection causes you to self-evaluate and walk away from the task if you have fallen short of perfection.

Secondly, you perceive yourself as a failure at times when your physical or mental health are not at their best and you therefore fail to start a task you have planned to complete. This type of `all or nothing thinking’ if left unchecked can lead to you believing that because one task did not get done, the same will be true of all other tasks.

You can fight back against both these behaviours by showing yourself compassion and focussing on what you have done well. When you show yourself some compassion it highlights the times in your life when your seeking perfection has caused you stress and anxiety. At those times when you used to say “its all or nothing” and that lead to emotional harm, you should replace that with “I would not expect perfection from others so why do I expect it from myself. I`m doing the best I can right now”.

And part of the impact of `all or nothing thinking’ is to discount as unimportant your achievements in the past where you perceived the result to be less than perfect. In order to fight back against this thinking error it is time to re-evaluate past achievements and give yourself a pat on the back for what you did well.

So next time something goes wrong when you are seeking to achieve a score of 10 out of 10, instead of seeing yourself as a 0 out of 10 and feeling ready to quit, be realistic and give yourself a break. Consider what you have achieved and if then you see yourself as a 7 out of 10, tell yourself that’s good enough!

By finding that true, middle ground you will save yourself from so much self-torture.

Anne Millne-Riley is a self-development coach and trainer, for more information go to

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