Is your All or Nothing Thinking Holding you Back?

Last month I attended the League of Extraordinary Women’s Run the World Conference in Brisbane (next one scheduled for Melbourne). And while I thoroughly enjoyed the lessons shared by inspiring entrepreneurial women  - I made a really interesting observation in particular when talking with others about what we would take home from the event.


In the course of several coffee break conversations I heard the same sorts of from comments from different people and I had a huge "aha" moment - because I used to be that way (and to some extent probably still am especially when tired or run down).  But because of work with coaches/mentors, reading Mindsets by Dr Carol Dweck, along with Dr Daniel Amens reflections on ANTS (automatic negative thinking) – to put it dramatically – has set me free.

So picture this – your new conference buddy is amazingly talented, incredibly skilled and is thinking about going out on her own. She mentions that that the work of one of the speakers in the NFP space really inspired her, but when we asked if she too might work in that area, she said “No, because I’ll never be able to do it as well as what’s already out there, so I’ll not do it at all”.

Her “all or nothing” thinking(if I can’t do it well I won’t do it at all) closed off any possibility that there might be an opportunity worth exploring.

On the same weekend I was speaking with yet another attendee about successful social media strategies and referring to one of the speakers use of Instagram – and the response from this attendee was, “Well Instagram works for them because they are a fashion label, it will never work for me like that”.

In this instance it was “always thinking” (a milder form of catastrophising ) closed off any possibility that there were any transferable lessons or insights despite the differences in products.

In both instances the individual might have been right, but the dominant negative thought patterns of “always”, “never” or “if I can’t do it well I won’t do it at all” definitely means these individuals won't even give it a try or bother to explore. My new friend who is wary of Instagram will never find out whether or not it might work because her mindset closes her off to even finding out how to use Instagram for other things.

Beware automatic negative thoughts

Dr Daniel Amens is the author of several books including Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. However in some of his earlier writing he talks about ANTS – Automatic Negative Thinking and the examples above are classic examples.

All or nothing thinking – its either all in or all off, there is no mid ground. This really fits in with the perfectionist thinking and we’ve read before about how perfectionism holds women back.  “If I can’t do something properly or well, then I won’t do it at all.” So how on earth did you learn to drive? We certainly didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to walk and talk already.  Most importantly this attitude or way of thinking yet again, keeps us playing small and safe.

Always thinking -  or in my own language “catastrophising”. I was raised by a long line of catastrophisers – and while I hate to admit it the old fairy tale of Henny Penny The Sky is Falling probably wasn’t funny to me as a kid. I excelled at catastrophising all through my 20’s and 30’s.  I used to disguise it socially by saying “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. 

Look for dramatic language such as:

  • “My boss always micromanages me”.
  • “My team are always late in the morning”. 
  • “My business is failing because I didn’t get the email newsletter out on time.”  
  • “This entire article/report is rubbish because of the typo near the beginning”.

With this sort of thinking dominating then we miss out on so much that might actually be good.

Develop a growth mindset

Dr Carol Dweck talks about mindsets – fixed and growth. When we have a fixed mindset our view of our talents, capabilities and possibilities has an upper limit.  On the other hand if you have a growth mindset then your view of what’s possible has no upper limit – you know that you anything is possible and you can learn to do anything, with the following three provisos:

  • You need to be prepared to be uncomfortable,
  • You need to be prepared to fail at times, and
  • You need to be prepared to do the work.

When we feel tired, stuck or frustrated, I reckon our thinking become more negative and we are more prone to a fixed mindset.

 And the best bit is that they are all easily remedied.  All you need is willingness to observe, reflect and learn - plus remember the three provisos.

 Start observing yourself in meetings or when you are out with friends.  Do you use language like “its always like this”, or “my husband never does this even when I ask him”, or “if I can’t do the 90 minute yoga class, then I’m not going to any yoga at all today”?

 Once you’ve noticed this start questioning yourself – are you actually right? Or is it that you have become so used to using always language or all or nothing language.  Surely 30 to 60 minutes of yoga is better than no yoga? And in fact there is some evidence available that suggests 10 – 15 minutes of yoga 3 times per day is far more beneficial than a 90 minute class anyway.

 With regard to career goals – all or nothing thinking will definitely keep you playing a much smaller game.

  • “If I can’t land that promotion easily then I won’t even bother applying.”
  • “I’ll never be as good as (insert incumbent’s name) so I won’t waste anyone’s time in even going for it.”

Tara Mohr in her research into why women only apply for roles unless they are 100% qualified, talks about people not apply for roles because they don’t want to waste anyone’ time including their own. 

 “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.”

 And I think that if you are prone to all or nothing thinking, always thinking or perfectionism then this would be skewed even more.

Because if you don’t put your hand up, if you don’t give it a try because there is a glimmer of a chance, if you don’t throw your hat in the ring because you think you  aren’t already perfect for the role, then no one will even begin to know that you are looking for a new opportunity. You certainly won’t get any job application experience or interview rehearsal time and you will stay stuck in a rut of your own making.

They way we do anything is the way we do everything.  What else are you missing out on because of negative thinking or a fixed mindset?  So, time to audit your thinking so you can get ahead more easily.   

What do you think?  How does this play out in your world?  Comments below.

  • I am the creator of The Ambition Revolution – the science and  art of amping smart and savvy. 
  • I mentor busy professionals to ensure they remain strategic, agile and focused on the bigger game. 

  • I also work with organisations who are trying to increase the profile of women in leadership, but struggling to do so

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