Getting Away From All Or Nothing Thinking

Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought or said anything akin to the following:

My blog will never have thousands of followers, so why even keep it up?

This book I’m writing will never be a best seller, so why even try to publish it? (Insert creative outlet here – i.e. My art will never be displayed in a gallery so why bother; I’m never going to be a famous musician so I’m just wasting my time…)

Or on a smaller scale:

I’d like to try my hand at cooking/gardening/knitting/etc but I’ll never be as good as my mom/dad/best friend (insert family member/friend/whoever).

I just wanted this event/holiday/gathering to be perfect and it wasn’t. I’m such a failure.

If any of these sound familiar, you may dabble in all-or-nothing thinking. And in fairness, we probably all have this on some level. Rarely do people cheer because their football team almost won the game. If you’ve ever watched your team lose the super bowl on a game-ending field goal attempt that went wide and to the right, you know that it doesn’t matter how close they were to winning (go ahead and guess my football team now). But unless you’re kicking the potential game winner in the super bowl, rarely does something we aim for have to be categorized as either perfection or a devastating failure.

Often, though, this is where self-sabotage steps in. Many of our brains like to see things as all or nothing, good or bad, success or failure, perfection or devastation. Especially in the throes of depression, our brain is excellent at convincing us that if we can’t achieve our ultimate goal, there’s no sense in trying. Take, for instance, the book example above. In this all or nothing thinking, our brain refuses to see that there’s a whole range between “nobody ever sees this book I’ve drafted” and “I’m a best selling author”. It tells us that we’ll get rejected if we try to publish it. And if we do manage to get published, nobody will read it. And if they do, it’ll get panned – everyone will realize what a crap writer we are and that will be the end of our writing career. We’ll be a laughing stock. Because to our brain, there are only two options – complete success or complete failure. There’s nothing in between. When, in fact, there’s plenty in between:

  • I could self-publish our book (and in fact, I know people who have self-published the first, and it did so well a publisher signed on for their next).
  • The number of people who read my book could be somewhere in between zero and best-selling author status.
  • Some of those people could like the book, even if all of them don’t.
  • One person may give it one star while another gives it five.
  • I may sell a decent amount, even though we’re not a best seller
  • By getting my name “out there” with any type of publishing, I could make a connection I never foresaw, and that connection could help me in the future.

But for some of us, our good old friend fear steps in and gives us an ultimatum: This either has to be perfect, or it’s a failure. And especially when we’re battling depression or anxiety, when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable and hurt, when failure and rejection can do their worse, our brain tries to get us to avoid them at all costs. Thus, self-sabotage.

So what can we do if all-or-nothing thinking sabotages us? My suggestion is to break it down. Let’s look at our goals piece by piece, and that may help us to see where we can still succeed, even if it’s not the “all” of all or nothing. I do this with a series of questions, and it helps to get to the bottom of *why* we think this way.

  1. What do I want to achieve?  
  2. Why? This piece is critical to the process. List as many reasons as you have. Be honest. It’s completely cool to have a goal of, say,  “I could stand to make a little more money.” Not all of your goals have to be big dreamy creative goals. Paying the bills is key too. Or you may say “It makes me feel accomplished/good about myself.” Cool. You deserve that. It’s completely ok to have a you-centered goal (assuming it’s not depriving/hurting others big time).
  3. Is there any other way to accomplish these goals? Or, put another way, if this doesn’t go perfectly, are there ways you could supplement this, and reach that thing you want to achieve?
  4. If this doesn’t work as you planned, what can you still gain from it?
  5. If this particular situation doesn’t work out the way you planned, will this absolutely, without doubt, have to be the final end of this path for you? Note: I said the final end. As in, you can never, ever go down this path again in any way shape or form.
  6. If the answer above is “no” (hint: it’s almost always no), why not? Why/how might you be able to readjust and follow this path in the future?
  7. If this doesn’t work out as you hoped, could it lead to something else that does?

These questions, and the answers, help us to see what other possible paths or options might look like. And in doing so, we may come to see that it doesn’t, in fact, have to all go perfectly, exactly this one particular way. And in fact, we may realize that we don’t even know why we held on to some of these thoughts/beliefs/feelings so long, once we look more closely.

I once remember saying to my therapist that because I’d had one rough hour, that the day was ruined. She replied, “Why? You still have another 23 hours to make it a good day.” I try to come back to this now when I’m tempted to “go big or go home’. I would self-sabotage 23 hours of my day, based on the idea that it had to be perfect, instead of accept that one hour was not. I wouldn’t give myself credit for the other 23, no matter how good they were, despite the fact that clearly, they outnumbered the bad hour.  And it wasn’t until I started thinking of the bad hour as a chance to make the rest of the day better that my perspective changed. I still struggle with this sometimes, but it’s really helped to pull me away from that thought pattern. It’s the same with goals. It’s great if your goal or dream works out exactly as you hoped. But sometimes it doesn’t. And it helps to keep us moving forward if we plan for alternative options, if we try not to allow our accomplishment to be all or nothing. Because often, the fear that it won’t turn out perfectly stops us from going anywhere at all.

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The Endless To Do List

There are numerous forms of self-sabotage. In my last post, I spoke about one of the most frequently-used, procrastination. But sometimes, self-sabotage comes in forms that are less obvious. In fact, sometimes, these self-sabotage disguises itself as downright productivity.

If the below look familiar, you may be unintentionally self-sabotaging.

Your To-do list continually grows, and is never completed.

To clarify, I’m not talking about your “life” to do list. Obviously, there’s always something we “could” be doing, or always some goal we eventually want to reach. But if on a regular basis you find that your daily list is significantly longer than you could ever accomplish, you may be self-sabotaging.

Now, of course if your kid gets sick or your car breaks down, you’ll probably be moving particular items (doctors/mechanic appointments) to the top of the list, and it may well make the time to task ratio disproportionate. But if you regularly don’t finish the key, pre-planned items on your to-do list, that’s another story.

While lists are great, we – or at least I – often use them as a brain dump. Everything I could possibly think I might have to do goes on my list.  And this makes it super easy to “get a lot done”, without getting a lot done. For instance, say I’ve had a goal of being published on a particular site, I’ve decided to finally write an article to submit. Except that I’m super afraid it’ll be rejected. If the only only thing I got done all day is write that article, it would be a huge step towards my goal (I can’t control if it’s accepted, but I’ve done all I can). But, if I keep adding small things to my to-do list such as “text this friend”, “add xyz appointment to the calendar”, “order such and such on amazon”, I could end up checking off twenty items on my list, feel incredibly productive, and completely avoid writing that article. I’m sabotaging my own efforts to write that article, despite it’s publication being a big goal.  Afterall, my brain subconsciously reasons, if I never write it, I can’t submit it, and therefore, I can’t get rejected.

You’re Constantly “Too Busy”

It’ll please you to know I’m not going to go off on my “why I hate too busy” tangent here.  I understand that many of us are running around to make ends meat, especially those with families, who are accounting not only for their own time, but that of others.  But, similar to the constant to do list, if you are routinely having to reschedule or miss important appointments, if you’re frequently uttering phrases like, “I haven’t had five minutes to pee” (and literally mean it) or “I’m so busy I haven’t had a chance to eat today”, you may be self-sabotaging by over-committing. Why is this self-sabotage? Because if you have more appointments, meetings, etc than can fit on your calendar, unless none of them last more than a few minutes, it’s virtually impossible that you’re going to get them all done. If you can’t find ten  minutes in your day to pee or to grab a quick snack, you aren’t going to get through every calendar item. You’re setting yourself up for “failure”, and that is a form of self-sabotage.  It might not be intentional, but it’s still sabotaging your efforts.  It leads to constantly feeling rushed, never feeling finished, and that cycle is difficult to break. This can also seriously affect your health.

You’re always in the same stage of the process.

 For me, it’s often the planning/brainstorming/ideas stage. For some people, it might be the analysis stage or the final review before going “live”/public/etc stage. For others still, it might be the promotion/marketing stage (i.e. I may get all the way through self-publishing my book, but I’m so scared of getting all ½ star reviews that I never actually do enough promotion to let anyone it’s published).

The point is, we stall with all appearances of being detail oriented and productive.  And of course, some stages take a while. Obviously, I would like my novel to be edited carefully before I self-publish it, so I don’t want that process rushed. But let me tell you that for the last year, I’ve been in the “I’m thinking about getting it edited” stage. Let me also tell you that my dad is an editor. And yet it took me over a year to ask him if he’d help me edit it. Because once it’s edited, if I want to publish it, that means I have to move forward towards the publishing stage. Which then means it’ll be out there. Which means people may read it. Or they may not (feels like rejection). And if they do they may hate it (rejection). And I may feel like a total failure because supposedly writing is “my thing”, and yet people hate it. It’s less painful, in the short term at least, to keep thinking about getting it edited.

So if you find you’re spending three times as long on a particular stage of the process than truly seems necessary, and every time you think “OK maybe I should move forward” you find one more thing you need to quadruple check/brainstorm/analyze, review, you may be self-sabotaging.

So what can you do?

When it comes to to do lists….

  • Create a list of no more than three items that you really want to get done. As in, if you get no other tasks done today, you’ll be happy if you do these three.  Remember that all days don’t have to be “conquer the world days”. JIf you’re honest with yourself when doing this list, you’ll know what warrants “making the list” in your current situation, and when you’re adding just so you have something to cross off. Also, remember it’s three max. The more complicated/intense the tasks are, the fewer to include.
  • After you’ve created this main list, have your “B” list. Basically, if you have a bang up day, get your primary list done, and still have plenty of time to spare, start on these. They’re often items that don’t have a serious time stamp, but need to be done at some point – i.e. you may need to clean the tub this week, but you probably (hopefully) don’t urgently need to clean it today.
  • Next comes your parking lot list. If you’re not familiar with a parking lot, this is basically your brain dump.  In meetings, it’s often items that are off-topic, but you want to address later.  It’s similar for the to-do list. This is all those items that you eventually may want to get to, but they’re not necessarily related to the major tasks at hand. The parking lot list is great for those who, like me, get random ideas and thoughts out of nowhere. Something might pop in your head, and you don’t want to forget it, but you know it’ll veer you off course to address now.  Both your B list and your parking lot list can live somewhere that you can access if you need, but aren’t in plain sight and therefore aren’t as distracting.

For Your Calendar…

Give yourself twice as long for each appointment as you think you’ll need. Why? When was the last time your doctor was right on time? Or the last time your department meeting wasn’t at some point sidetracked and ran over the allotted time? If you schedule back to back to back meetings/appointments with little breathing room, it’s really easy to get “too busy” if there’s any hitch in the schedule at all. And if one of your appointments or to-do items involves an underlying fear, you could almost go to Vegas with the odds that it’s the one that you won’t have enough time for.

For Both: Set Boundaries….

Set boundaries for things that are really important to you as an overall human being. If it’s absolutely essential to your mental health that you meditate for thirty minutes a day, this item could be one of the three on your list every day. If your spiritual health relies on going to church/service each week, put that on the calendar and make it a non-negotiable (obviously these are barring emergencies/illness etc). If it’s important to you that your whole family sits down for dinner at the table every night, make it an appointment for yourself.

This might seem off topic, but often, we can self-sabotage by being so busy we don’t take care of ourselves. If we’re exhausted because we got two hours of sleep, we’ve eaten every meal in the car for the past week, we feel spiritually disconnected, we are not in a good place for moving towards our goals. And that’s where self-sabotage does its best work. Our fears often magnify when we’re exhausted or anxious or depressed or feeling disconnected from ourselves, and self-sabotage thrives on fear.

The Procrastination Cycle

In my last blog, I talked about self-sabotage, why we do it, named some of the most common methods of doing so. I also promised to dig a bit deeper into each of those methods throughout the week. As a self-saboteur, procrastination is one of my key tools. In fairness, it’s not an intentional tool. It’s a super convenient one, and I’d say that it’s probably one of the prime self-sabotage techniques for people in general, when it comes to avoiding our fears.

Why is procrastination so commonly used to self-sabotage?

1.  You can literally procrastinate by doing anything – scrolling social media, walking the dog, picking your nose, you name it.

2.   Most of the time (picking your nose perhaps notwithstanding, but who am I to judge), procrastination can seem convincingly justified. For instance, you may know that you have to start on that guest post you were asked to write, but wouldn’t it be so sweet if your spouse came home to a clean house and a special dinner? They’ve been working so hard, they deserve that, don’t they? And they may well deserve it. And you also have been working hard, and were finally asked to write a guest post and you deserve that too. But if you’re worried about your post not being good enough, getting negative feedback, repercussions of others reading it (i.e. if you’re talking about a personal topic like I do with mental health), it’s super easy to justify putting that off, especially when it’s to do something for someone else.

3.  It often helps us feel accomplished, even when we’ve avoided our main task. And sometimes, it really is getting things done. We manage to tick of smaller items, less scary items, all while skirting the one thing we really needed to do to reach our goal.

4.  Starting is often the hardest part. Think about a morning workout routine. I can say with full honesty that the toughest part of my morning workout is not the workout. It’s hearing the alarm, getting up in the dark, getting dressed, and getting set up for my workout/going outside for my run. Rarely do we jump out of bed at our alarm, eagerly get dressed, hurry to the gym/get outside for our run and then stand there and say “Nope, not doing it.” It’s that getting started. It’s that first initial push to move forward with the plan.  Especially because once we start, we’ve often forged some sort of internal commitment to ourselves to see it through. Which opens us up to things like failure, rejection, and all sorts of other things that make us feel vulnerable. But when we procrastinate, we don’t have to get to that stage.

5. It can be super tough to identify. Obviously, if you’ve chosen to pick your nose for hours instead of work on the guest post, it’s a bit more obvious. But if like me, you procrastinate with productive activities, maybe even activities related to the task at hand, it can be significantly more difficult to pinpoint. I, for example, am a procrastination brain-stormer/researcher/list maker (I’ll delve more into lists and self-sabotage later this week). I have more notebooks and documents and apps filled with varying versions of the same brainstorm for Spread Hope Project and advocacy work that I’ve lost count. I always tell myself I just need to think it through a little more, or make one more list of ideas, or read one more article about xyz to make sure I have all the possible ideas and information I need. When really what I need to do, after the umteenth list and brainstorm, is just get started. I’ve finally recognized this, because I have recognized that my strength is in the big vision and little details but the implementation (part where I get started) trips me up. But it’s taken me a long time to recognize that.  When your activities seem productive and goal-oriented, it’s a lot trickier to identify them as procrastination.

So what can we do about it?  

As a self-proclaimed procrastinator, I wish I had all the answers. But I do have some tricks that have helped me.

Identify the procrastination technique(s).

  • Record it old school. You can keep a bulleted list of what you’re accomplishing/doing. You could also use an old school planner, that breaks down the day in increments (usually by the hour). Traditionally, this is used for planning out your day, and you an use it that way. But you could also use it to write down how you spent your time throughout the hour. And don’t cheat either – if you spent 15 minutes scrolling through social media, include it. It doesn’t have to be exact, but if you notice that Facebook comes up in every hour (and your job doesn’t involve primarily social media), it can help indicate patterns.
  • Use a task  timer. I like the Task Timer app for iphone, but there are other (free) options I’m sure. This app uses the Pomodoro Technique, and allows you to assign different task categories. Each time you restart the timer, you can select the task category. Be honest about your tasks – if you plan to spend the next 25 minutes checking social or doing laundry or whatever it is, mark it as such. You can then go back and notice how much time you spent doing what.
  • If you’re primarily on the computer, look at the open tabs on your browsers. This often shows you what you were doing to distract yourself.
  • Have an accountability partner. This obviously takes someone who’s willing to participate, but it can be a big help. Set a frequency with with to regularly check in. This also means we’re more likely to keep track of what we’re accomplishing, which can help identify patterns. Often times, others are better at noticing our patterns than us.
  • Remove those things you think *may* be your procrastination culprits. Put your phone away. Log out of social media. Close all browser tabs/apps/etc except for the ones your specifically working in right now.  If cooking/doing laundry/etc is your distraction, close the door to those rooms or go in a room far away from the kitchen as make sense. If you start feeling “naked” without these outlets, you’ve probably hit on (at least some of) your procrastination techniques.

You’ve Identified the Techniques… Now What?

  • For starters, keep up with the bullet point above. Move away as many distractions as you can, if you know that they’re your procrastination techniques.
  • Schedule in time for your favorite procrastinations, and stick to it. If you use a timer or a planner, dedicate one or two of those time blocks to your favorite procrastination. This is especially helpful procrastination techniques that double as tasks that actually need to get done (eventually). If you do indeed need to do laundry, knowing that you’ve blocked that time to do it during the day can help that gnawing feeling of “What if I forget or get too busy, I better just go do it now…”.  Not all procrastination is intentional – sometimes we think “oh I’ll just pop a load of whites in the laundry before I get started on that blog post”, and two hours later we’ve washed and folded our entire wardrobe and organized every drawer by color.
  • Pare down your to do list to three items max. Fewer is better, but I get that we all have deadlines.The bigger ticket/scarier/more complicated the items are, the fewer you include. I’ll talk about this more in a dedicated post, but often procrastination comes from feeling overwhelmed – again, that whole “getting started” piece.
  • If you get stuck just do something, anything (related to the task). As I mentioned, fear often keeps us from getting started. It’ll tell us something like “You can’t write that article. You don’t even have a title. You can’t turn in an article without a title.” Our brains psyche us our and we’re frozen before we even get started. And the more this builds up in our head, the more that rides on this title, the more we tend to freeze. So if you have to, put in a placeholder. It can be “Insert title”. It can be a general topic of the article (Procrastination). If you get stuck on what to write in the article itself, just start write anything related that comes to mind. Go back and fix it later, but get something down.  I talk a lot about writing here, but this can be true for just about any task that we’re dreading.  We often procrastinate – and self-sabotage – when we put so much pressure on one decision (the title of the article), when really, if we just got started in some way, we’d figure it out as we went along.

I hope some of these help! In my next post, I’ll be talking about the Endless To Do List and procrastination.

Are You An Awesome Self-Sabotager Too?

Welcome to week three of the Spread Hope Project weekly themes. This week’s topic is one that I’m super excited to talk about: Self-Sabotage. Why, you might ask, am I super excited to talk about this topic? Because:

I am an awesome self-sabotager.

 

Self sabotage

(Grammar note: I realize the proper term may be “self-saboteur”, I like sabotager better). And by awesome, of course, I mean this is something I understand all too well, because, if I’m being totally honest (and why wouldn’t I be?) this is probably something that I do daily. In fact, it’s something many of us do regularly. Sometimes without even realizing it. The truth is, self-sabotage is way more common than you may think, and it often shows up in forms nobody expects – in fact, often, it shows up in forms that, on the surface, look quite positive and productive (more on this later).

Why do we self-sabotage? Well, we’re all unique people living unique lives, and so therefore I can’t speak for each and every one of us, but there’s one thread that tends to tie together a lot of self-sabotage efforts.  If you’ve been reading these weekly theme series, it’s one you might recognize from last week: fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of success (yep, this exists – if we’re successful, there’s pressure to continue to keep becoming more successful, and that’s freakin’ scary), fear of the unknown/uncertainty, imposter syndrome. I could go on and on. And underlying these fears may be feelings such as low self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it’s not uncommon. If we’re struggling with our self-confidence, it’s a lot easier to convince us (and for us to convince ourselves) that not only are we going to fail, but that the results of failing are going to be awful. For those of us who live with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, these feelings can be magnified further. And when these are magnified, so too may be the fears, and that can lead to even stronger self-sabotage.

Now let me stop for a moment to clarify something: the word sabotage sounds pretty awful. And when it’s done intentionally, maliciously, towards someone else, it is. If you intentionally sabotage someone’s relationship or big day or something like this, obviously that’s not OK. But when it comes to self-sabotage, I believe that often, it isn’t a conscious decision, and it’s certainly not intentionally malicious. Rather, I think we frequently do this as a form of self-protection, a sort of preservation of self. When you are struggling with depression and experiencing extremely low self-worth, for example, rejection or failure could be especially devastating, furthering the depression and feelings of worthlessness. So our brain, without our conscious input, says “Hey, that doesn’t sound good at all, so I’m going to do what I have to in order to not get rejected”. And one of the ways in which we can not get rejected, is to prevent ourselves from going after something fully in the first place. Thus, self-sabotage.

That said, just because it’s not a conscious decision to start with doesn’t mean we can’t bring consciousness to it. Which is to say that when we learn to recognize our patterns of self-sabotage, we can potentially spot when our brain starts veering that direction, and hopefully learn some ways to intervene.

 

how do you self-sabotage

 

As I said, I’m awesome at self-sabotage. Which isn’t awesome, but it does mean I’m pretty familiar with it. And while there are so many ways to self-sabotage, there are some methods that, from my observation and experience, seem to be particularly common.   I’ll be delving into some of these more thoroughly later in the week, but wanted to give an overview here.

  • Procrastination. This might be number one. Raise your hand if you, too, find just one more really interesting article to read or Facebook post you must comment on before starting that task that makes you nervous/concerned/etc. I’ll be delving into this a lot more later.
  • The endless to do list/always being too busy. If day after day, week after week, you’ve built up your schedule or to-do list to the point that there’s no humanly possible way you’re going to get through it all, you might want to take a closer look. If you’re one of those people who wears “too busy” like a badge of honor, please don’t hate me just yet. I’ll explain further when I do a deeper dive into this topic later this week.
  • All or nothing thinking. For those of you who, like me, struggle with gray areas, all or nothing thinking (“it’s not worth it unless I get this exact, specific result”) is a super easy way for our brain to freeze us where we stand, thus sabotaging our efforts to move forward.
  • Setting goals with unreasonable time frames, requirements, or that require all “outside influence” (i.e. where you have very little to no control). It’s OK to be optimistic and go outside your comfort zone. In fact, I encourage it. But have some smaller in between goals to build on too. If my only plan for paying off debt is winning the Powerball, I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment (aka sabotaging my efforts).
  • Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We’ve heard this before in slightly different context, right? Now, this doesn’t mean giving up after the first failure or rejection. Persistence is key in reaching goals.  But every disappointment, or at least most, provide a learning opportunity. If you learn/ change/tweak nothing, you’ll probably get the same result. Think Charlie Brown kicking the football here.
  • Not being true to ourselves. Have you ever tried to dedicate yourself to job or project or program that goes against everything that is you? I’m not just talking about “my job isn’t my dream career”, but something that really, authentically doesn’t feel like you. It might work for a while, but eventually, you burn out. Furthermore, resentment and bitterness often set in. It’s incredibly difficult to feel successful and fulfilled when you’re bored, burnt out, resentful, and bitter. Knowingly setting ourselves on this course, therefore, sabotages our efforts.

There are more, certainly. These are the ones that I see most commonly. I personally have done all of these at times in my life, and some are still tough habits to kick. Over the next week, I’ll be digging deeper into each of the above, offering ways to recognize them, and tools and tricks for dealing with them.