Why all-or-nothing thinking can undermine your good

I was chatting to a friend recently who told me he could no longer be bothered with people, his choice, as far as he was concerned sooner or later everyone disappointed him.

With him you’re either totally out or you’re totally in, that’s just the type of guy he is.

But I could see that he was paying a price for this all-or-nothing thinking.

His ‘absolutism’ was reflected in the shrinking of his social life to his wife, daughter and the odd precariously positioned friend but also in the narrowing of his exposure to different world views.

I also wondered, given its ubiquity as a symptom of depression, whether there was more to his glum mood than he was letting on.

For him people were right or wrong, brilliant or idiots. There was little room in between.

So I asked him if he’d ever made a mistake.

He acknowledged that he had.

I asked if he’d every been disappointed in something he had said or done.

Indeed, this turned out to be the case.

And last I asked if he always trusted himself and followed through on his commitments no matter what.

Of course, it was impossible for him to answer yes to this one (who can?).

So I asked why he was applying a higher standard of behavior to others than himself?

Although it was a confronting question, it made the point.

One of the consequences of all-or-nothing thinking is that it leaves little room for people to be human.

I suggested to him that it was far more important to look at patterns of behavior over time.

The reality is that we get better at whatever it is we practice, whether that’s tennis or French, living ethically or being dishonest.

When we practice a behavior over time it becomes part of our implicit memory and that means we do it automatically without even thinking.

Habits are cues. Patterns give us deep insights into what drives people.

We are all flawed but it’s pretty easy to distinguish a mistake from behavior that is either habitual or intentional.

We want to walk the line between giving others the benefit of the doubt while guarding against those who would take advantage.

So if you are struggling to know how to respond to someone who has disappointed you then ask yourself:

  1. Is this a one-off?
  2. Have I seen this before? Regularly?
  3. Is this a slip up?
  4. Or is this a habituated part of their character?
  5. Was the incident deliberate/planned?

Hopefully the answers will help your decision-making.

Of course if you’re faced with a situation that demands it, then the fight or flight no-time-for-maybe-this-or-maybe-that decision might be appropriate.

It’s just exhausting as a way of life.

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