Do you find yourself unable to let go of small mistakes you made at work, believing you can’t do anything right? If you’re running late in the morning trying to get yourself and the kids out the door, do you question whether you’ve got the whole working mom thing down? Have you ever woken up to find a sink with dirty dishes and asked what’s wrong with you that you can’t do the simplest tasks to take care of your home?
You’re not alone if you’ve had similar versions of these scenarios. But you’re also probably dealing with all-or-nothing thinking, which if left unaddressed, can lead to slipping into the all-or-nothing trap.
All-or-nothing thinking is a negative thinking pattern that polarizes situations, experiences, choices, and people. Also known as black-or-white thinking, this thought process leads to placing everything into boxes of “good” and “bad.”
Why am I discussing this topic on a podcast for accountant moms? Because unfortunately, accountant moms tend to be perfectionists, and all-or-nothing thinking is quite common in perfectionists. This all-or-nothing thought pattern leaves little room for balanced perspectives and discounts conflicting or ambiguous information.
You might not consider yourself a perfectionist, but I promise you, you most likely have more perfectionist tendencies than you realize. See if any of these apply:
- You tend to be highly critical of yourself.
- You find it difficult to start anything new because of fear of failure.
- You set goals that may not be reasonable.
- You struggle to move on when things don’t work out.
- You are prone to procrastination.
- You respond defensively to constructive criticism.
There’s nothing wrong if any of these apply to you, but it’s important to be aware of them because perfectionism often leads to the trap of all-or-nothing thinking. This trap can make it even more challenging for you as an accountant and a mom, and as with any trap, it will keep you stuck.
This week I’m going to discuss what causes all-or-nothing thinking and how to stay out of the trap.
What causes all-or-nothing thinking
Think about a time when you said something like:
- “I never feel happy; I always feel sad.”
- “Everything is terrible; nothing good ever happens.”
- “It’s always going to be like this.”
- “Nothing ever works in my favor.”
- “He’s always acting that way.”
- “She’ll never stop.”
- “He never helps me.”
- “She always raises her voice.”
- “If I can’t do it right, I’m not doing it at all.”
You may notice that all-or-nothing thinking typically thinks in extremes like “never,” “always,” “everything,” and “nothing.”
As I said before, you're not alone if you’ve had these or similar thoughts. Most of us have all-or-nothing thinking because of one thing that we all have in common – we have a human brain.
The truth is that the human brain has a negativity bias which means we attribute more weight to negative experiences and interactions than to positive ones. For example, your brain will easily remember the last time your spouse didn’t help with the kids, excluding the hundreds of times they did.
If you think about it from a survival standpoint, it makes sense that our brains would want to protect us by being on high alert for negative things, but from an experiential perspective, it’s often not accurate or helpful. Your all-or-nothing thinking patterns make you more stressed, less creative, and closed off to potential solutions.
As I shared before, all-or-nothing thinking is common among perfectionists because they often see things as either a success or a failure, with no grey areas.
I’ll never forget when a perfectionist told me, “If I can’t do it perfectly, I’m not doing it at all.” I remember thinking how rigid and constrictive that must feel – there were so many things she wasn’t willing to try because her mother was a perfectionist and raised her to believe that being the best at something was the only option.
If you grew up in a family that blamed hard times on external sources and you heard things like, “We just have bad luck” or “Nothing good ever happens to us,” there’s a good chance that when things don’t go the way you want them to, you might hear a similar narrative in your head.
Regardless of where your all-or-nothing thinking comes from, it is often automatic and can be challenging to identify. The more stressful and chaotic life becomes for a busy and overwhelmed accountant mom, the easier it is to perceive the world through this faulty lens, and the harder it can be to see it for what it actually is.
As a mother, it’s also important to become aware of your all-or-nothing thinking because your children are watching and learning. They’re taking it to heart when you use “never,” “always,” “everything,” and “nothing” language.
It’s important to address this because all-or-nothing thinking can affect your self-perception and your children’s. For example, think about how your appearance and social comparison, especially on social media, make it possible for constant all-or-nothing thinking.
When you or your teenager see a retouched image on social media, an automatic thought may be, ‘My body doesn’t look like this; I hate my body,’” or “If I looked like her, I’d love my body.” With the awareness of our all-or-nothing thinking, we can open the door to more communication with our children about how their brains work and how to not fall into the all-or-nothing trap.
How to stay out of the trap
So now that you know it’s easy to fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking and that your brain is tricky in how it gets you to fall into the trap, I want to share 3 ways to start becoming aware, so you can stay out of the trap. Again, awareness is the key, so here are 3 ways you can become aware:
The first way to start becoming aware is that all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t use the language “all-or-nothing.” As I shared before, it typically uses words like “never,” “always,” “everything,” and “nothing.”
I shared some examples before, but let me give you some more examples so you might recognize when all-or-nothing thinking is present:
- I’ve tried it before, and it didn’t work, so I’m never going to try it again.
- I can’t send this email until it’s perfect.
- This relationship will never work.
- I don’t have enough time to do the whole job, so I’m not going to start it.
- I don’t have a full hour to exercise, so I’m not going to do anything.
- I’m never going to find the answer, so I may as well stop looking.
- Here we go again; this always happens to me.
- I forgot to sign the permission slip. I am the worst mother.
- Nothing I do ever seems to make a difference, so I might as well stop trying.
While all-or-nothing thinking is common, you still want to be able to recognize the sneaky language you’re using. Start to pay attention and catch yourself when you’re using “never,” “always,” “everything,” and “nothing.”
The second way you can become aware of all-or-nothing thinking is that it feels factual. In other words, the all-or-nothing thought feels so factual that you might want to argue for the right to think it.
The truth is that some things might be factual, but not everything your brain offers you is true. To stay out of the trap of all-or-nothing thinking, you have to be willing to stop and question whether the thought you’re thinking is true and whether you can absolutely know that it’s true.
For example – If you’re thinking, “This relationship will never work,” you have to stop and ask yourself, “Is that true? Can I absolutely know that that’s true?” Again, just because your brain offers you that thought doesn’t mean it’s true.
The reason we so easily fall into the all-or-nothing trap is that, unless you’ve been coached by me, you most likely don’t have the skill to manage your brain and don’t have enough awareness of what you’re thinking or how to question it. Just because something you think feels factual doesn’t mean that it is.
In the example with the thought, “This relationship will never work,” if you continued to believe that thought is factual, your brain would never look for ways that it might not be true. As I’ve shared before on the podcast, what you believe your brain looks for proof of, so by questioning whether your thought is true or not, you give your brain a chance to show you evidence that the opposite might be true or more accurate.
In other words, what might be true is the thought, “This relationship might work,” “It’s possible that this relationship could work,” or “I’m willing to look at other ways that this relationship can work.” So just because your brain thinks, “This relationship will never work,” doesn’t make it a fact, so be willing to question your all-or-nothing thoughts.
And the third way you can become aware of all-or-nothing thinking and stay out of the trap is to understand that this is just a function of your lower, primitive brain. That’s the part of your brain that just wants to keep you safe and doesn’t want to expend energy or fail at anything.
This part of your brain will offer you arbitrary thoughts that it interprets as keeping you safe and having you conserve your energy. It means well, but it’s often not helpful or useful.
For example, with the thought, “This relationship will never work,” your lower, primitive brain may have offered that thought to keep you from having to do the work to make the relationship work. To your lower brain, it’s much easier to do nothing than to take action that might be required to make the relationship work.
Another example I often see with coaching accountant moms is the idea of leaving your job and going out on your own as an entrepreneur. The most common thought I hear is, “I don’t know enough.”
Think about that in terms of what I’ve shared about the all-or-nothing trap – it has the sneaky language of “enough,” it seems factual, which means your brain is busy trying to prove that thought true, and your lower, primitive brain would offer you that thought to keep you from taking action. It would rather you stay “safe” and unhappy in your current job than do something new like going out on your own.
But thankfully, you can override that all-or-nothing thinking by asking the following 3 questions when you have an all-or-nothing thought:
- How is that thought NOT true?
- What else is possible?
- What’s the worst that can happen?
Let’s use the example of the thought, “I don’t know enough”:
- How is that thought NOT true? – That’s easy to answer – you’re an accountant. You already know a lot and what’s unfamiliar is easy to figure out or ask for help. You don’t need to know a lot; you just need to trust in your ability to find people who can help.
- What else is possible? – It’s possible that you could have an incredibly successful practice as an entrepreneur and balance having a firm and a family without having to be beholden to other people’s ideas about what work-life balance should look like. It’s possible that this could be the best decision for you and your family. It’s possible that this is the perfect time to become a mompreneur.
- What’s the worst that can happen? – This can be challenging to consider, but it’s important to go there. The worst that can happen is that you could not know how to do something, and you’d have to reach out to others who have done it. The worst that can happen is you hire a coach or a mentor to guide you, or join a sisterhood of other accountant mompreneurs like we have with the CPA MOMS franchisees.
I recently did this work with a coaching client who had to do a self-evaluation for her yearly review. She had a lot of negative thoughts about herself and was worried about filling out the self-evaluation.
We worked together on the top 3 most negative beliefs she had about herself and instead of proving them true, I asked her to give me 3 ways that each negative belief was not true; she wound up giving me 10 for each. She was shocked at how much better she felt about herself and the work she had done for her company.
So now that you know all about the all-or-nothing trap that many of us fall into, I want you to hone in on that question – What else is possible? Think about that this week – what else is possible – and let your brain get to work showing you what else could be as true or truer in order to help you have the career and the life you truly want.
- This all-or-nothing thought pattern leaves little room for balanced perspectives and discounts conflicting or ambiguous information.
- Awareness is the key because if the all-or-nothing trap goes unnoticed or unaddressed, it can affect many areas of your life, making it challenging to have the successful career and the happy life you most want.