3 Lessons I Learned by Doing Away With All-or-Nothing Thinking

I looked glumly at my daughter’s second-grade teacher while attending one of the quarterly parent-teacher conferences at my daughter’s school. Mother’s Day had just gone by, and my daughter’s class had put up a dance performance to celebrate the moms. The celebration was on a weekday, which meant I had to work and couldn’t make it to her school. As I sat with my kid’s teacher, she told me I was the only mom who had missed the event. 

Driving back home, I felt crushed, thinking, “I’m such a terrible mother!” I continued to feel guilty as my inner voice told me: “I’m a failure — I can’t even organize my schedule to attend a day made to celebrate mothers!” 

Suddenly, my daughter put her arms up and said, “Mom, this is the first time you missed Mother’s Day celebrations. Why are you sad?” I wondered how she could be so kind to me when I was tearing myself down so bitterly. Maybe she was onto something. 

Over the next couple of days, I mulled over the teacher’s words. The things I was saying to myself in my head were negative and made me miserable. I wondered if I had fallen into the trap of “all-or-nothing thinking” that I had read about in a self-help book.

All-or-nothing thinking, the book says, is a black-and-white thought process that leaves little room for any middle-ground thoughts. As I read more, it occurred to me I beat myself up quite a bit. Whenever I made the tiniest parenting error, I viewed myself as always a bad mom, without any gray area. I was thinking in extremes — and robbing myself of any possibility that existed between those polar ends. 

I chipped away at my critical self-talk by reading Dr. Burns’ book. I realized when I thought in an all-or-nothing way, I felt paralyzed with self-blame and regret. The book advised me to inspect my thoughts, question them, and practice thinking of more than one alternative to every thought. 

The more I reflected on how I thought, how I felt about myself slowly began to change. The way I spoke to myself stopped being so harsh. I tried to think of the many ways that I looked after my daughter by taking her to the movies, arranging playdates, providing warm meals, and more. Didn’t that make me a good mother? 

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Being kind to myself was something I practiced. I also asked my mother to point out occasions when I was criticizing myself too much and to help me seek out realistic thoughts to counter the unhelpful all-or-nothing thinking. 

It was a relief! I stepped away from describing myself as only a good or bad mother, but rather, a mother who was excellent in many areas, average in some, and probably not-so-great in others. 

Here are three lessons I learned by doing away with all-or-nothing thinking:

Check the labels you give yourself

I thought about how upset and helpless I felt when I labeled myself a “bad mother.” I put myself in a box with very little room to maneuver in. 

I thought about how I could avoid using an umbrella label for myself that ignored all the times I did outstandingly well as a mother, such as when I patiently fed my daughter or answered her few million questions. 

For example, I could say to myself that I felt bad because I could not attend my daughter’s Mother’s Day event at school. Reminding myself that I had a lot on my plate and was doing the best I could softened the blow. I was a good mom on some days, great on many, and maybe not-so-efficient on some! By changing the labels I gave myself, I instantly felt relieved as the burden of self-flagellation started decreasing. 

Looking back, I recalled a time about three years back when I worked really hard for a promotion at my office. However, I didn’t get it and decided to drop out of the running altogether by changing my job. If I had instead told myself that one setback is not representative of my entire being, I would have felt motivated to continue aiming for that promotion. 

All-or-nothing thinking got in the way of my best interests — I could have continued striving for that promotion at a different time. Talking to myself kindly with words of understanding and compassion could go a long way in dealing with obstacles.

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Worthiness comes from within

I instantly felt unworthy when I called myself a terrible mother. On introspection, I concluded I am worthy of my child’s love, irrespective of whether every action of mine proves it every single day. 

Breaking the association of my self-worthiness as a mother with the number of things I do for my child has helped me tremendously. I realized that I had also been attaching my sense of worth to achieving something in many areas of my life. I felt worthy in my job, as a member of my community, my role as a daughter, and so on, only when I thought of myself as productive. 

Did I always have to achieve something to be worthy? No! I could be good ol’ average me, living my day-to-day life, appreciating all the small and big things I do for myself and others. 

Be perfectly imperfect

Over time, doing away with all-or-nothing thinking has led me to feel comfortable in my skin. I try to think in a way that is realistic and helpful to me. I am pretty good at some aspects of being a mother, excellent at some parts of my job, and try to be a responsible daughter. I’m rarely always good or uniformly bad in any of my roles! 

Nobody is perfect, and I like my goofy self! And from imperfection comes humanity, love, and humility — all of which are awesome qualities for us to strive for, and for our children to emulate. 

All-or-nothing thinking made me feel like the whole of me was faulty and I had no scope to improve. However, I now reflect on my thoughts in all colors of the rainbow, not merely in black-and-white terms. I feel alive, productive, and accepting of my (many) imperfect bits. 

Missing one Mother’s Day event did not make me a “bad” mother. How I talked to myself and how I looked for alternative thoughts to all-or-nothing thinking helped me remember that I was a mom, like any other, who has good, bad, and average moments and everything in between as well! What’s not to like?

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Dr. Preetika Chandna is a freelance writer, psychologist, counselor, educator (former), and mother who applies her clinical and life experiences to write on parenting, child and adolescent issues, mental health, and relationships. Preetika firmly believes that the best day to change is … today! She is resilient and deals with life’s knocks with lots of eye-rolling.