For many of us, when we see someone who seems incredibly fit, we think they must be perfect when they train and eat. And we immediately get this feeling that we’re not as good as them, we never will be, and basically, we’re an embarrassment to our species.
Now, it’s easy to see how the last bit obviously isn’t true. But can you see how the first bit makes that conclusion inevitable? Read on to learn how these all-or-nothing thoughts, which you may not even notice, can be messing with your head and interfering with your healthy plans.
All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion
Cognitive distortions are what psychologists call thoughts that put an unrealistic frame on the way you see yourself, your life, and the world around you.
There are many types of cognitive distortions. All-or-nothing thinking is one where we believe, contrary to the evidence, that a thing has to be 100% perfect, or else it is 100% bad.
Research has linked this black-and-white way of thinking to struggles with our mood, and often to depression and anxiety. Sometimes we think we’re just giving ourselves “tough love”, and we mistakenly believe that being our own worst critic will keep us “sharp”. But if focusing on our failures and seeing the worst in ourselves becomes a habit, it actually ruins our motivation and diminishes our ability to bounce back from setbacks.
All-or-nothing thinking makes us interpret events harshly. We judge our performance, our potential, and our value as a person as either good or bad. And although it sounds like the outcomes might be half and half, this style of thinking always tends to tip toward the negative. The more harsh we are in our judgements of anything, the worse we feel. And the worse we feel about ourselves, the harder it is to keep trying.
So you can imagine, it’s important to address this in our efforts at health and fitness, an area where it’s way to easy to get discouraged.
How it shows up in your fitness
Have you ever started out your week with amazing meals, great workouts, and awesome sleep, and then, oops! You got into argument at work. You were still steaming when you got home, so you let yourself indulge in some stress-relief Oreo’s. But at some point, you realized you just broke your plan. At that moment, did you put down the bag? Or were you like many of us, and instead you doubled down on because the day/week/whole program is ruined, anyway?
We blame lack of discipline when we give up our training and healthy eating, but the real culprit is all-or-nothing thinking. When we mistake a deviation from our plan with total destruction, we’re telling ourselves that our goals are impossible to reach. If we can’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
Where it comes from
Last week, I introduced you to Star Rose, part of a psychotherapy and coaching duo that help women break free from limiting thoughts and behaviors.
When I asked her about all-or-nothing thinking, Star said that it had a particular way of sabotaging our hopes. She said, “We have these deep-seated, (negative) core beliefs that we’re really kind of sticking to. We go out into our environment and look for ways to validate them.” Whether it’s with our diet, our job, or friendships, binary thinking gives us lots of opportunities to prove our negative beliefs about ourselves right, because they let us count anything less than perfect as a total failure.
Subconsciously, there may be something comforting about having no hope or faith in ourselves. It might feel like we’re protecting ourselves from failure. But as the weeks, months, and years go by, staying cowed by our harsh inner judge leaves us feeling unfulfilled.
How to let go of black and white living
To start being gentler with yourself and become more resilient against setbacks, you have to start looking for the shades of grey in your life.
First, practice self-compassion. That means instead of punishing yourself when you think you failed, be kind to yourself. Making mistakes is not something to dread. Let yourself learn to expect comfort when you slip up and watch your motivation swell.
Second, balance your perspective. Why focusing on the worst in what you did? Better to take a step back and widen your lens so you can spot all the parts that you actually did well want to celebrate. Train your brain to recognize that even if something wasn’t perfect, it was still worth doing.
Last, recognize that you are more than your diet, your training plan, or any pass-fail task you could set for yourself. Your goals and dreams are important, but only because they bring you fulfillment. They aren’t more important than your well-being. They’re meant to support your well-being.
I’m a fit person. And I want you to know that I’m not perfect. I eat healthy about 80% of the time, and I work out regularly because I love the way it makes me feel.
But I also love to go out for a pizza and ice cream sometimes. It’s important to allow myself do that and enjoy the heck out of it. The next day, I simply get back to my regular routine. I eat nutritious and nourishing whole foods, get active, and continue living my life.
Please make sure you don’t punish yourself when you indulge, whether it was planned or unexpected. If you force yourself to train twice as hard or starve yourself the next day, it sets up a really negative cycle that makes exercise a punishment, gentleness a mistake, and reinforces all-or-nothing perfectionism. Just get back on track the next day like it’s no big deal, because it really isn’t.
Next time you fall off-track with your fitness plan, I want you to think about your car. I always tell my clients, “When you have a flat, do you slash the other three tires and abandon your car?” Of course not. You fix that tire and get back on the road.
I wish you many happy, healthy years on the road, celebrating the positive and truly enjoying your amazing body.