Perfectionism And Should Statements

“Should” statements, also knowns as “shoulding,” are another common cognitive distortion associated with perfectionism.

Should Statements and Perfectionism

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Do you ever feel guilty? Maybe you did something you shouldn’t have done and so you feel guilty about it. Or there’s something you should be doing but you’re not so you feel guilty about that. One of the biggest reasons we tend to feel guilt is because we’re not living up to our shoulds. And not living up to our shoulds also hurts our self-esteem and self-confidence and can leave us feeling depressed. And should statements can also be a big source of stress and anxiety, and they play a big role in perfectionism. And should statements are simply statements we make to ourselves about what we should and shouldn’t do.

Should statements directed towards ourselves are often referred to as shoulding ourselves. And they’re a type of cognitive distortion, which are exaggerated ways of thinking about the world that distort reality. So in this video we’re going to look at the different types of should statements we tend to tell ourselves, why they leave us feeling stressed anxious and guilty, and how we can reduce our shoulding in order to help reduce stress anxiety and guilt and make it less likely we become depressed.

And we’re going to start by looking at what Karen Horney had to say about should statements. She’s a Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, and there’s a chapter from her book neurosis and human growth called “the tyranny of the should.”

So describing the tyranny of the should she says:

We hold before ourselves our image of perfection and unconsciously tell ourselves, forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are, this is how you should be.

I should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody and to be always productive.

I should be the utmost of honesty, generosity, considerateness, justice, dignity, courage and unselfishness.

I should be the perfect spouse lover parent child.

I should never feel hurt, sad, scared, anxious, angry. I should always be calm and serene.

I should be able to solve every problem of my own and other people’s immediately.

I should be able to overcome every difficulty as soon as I see it.

I should never be tired or sick.

I should always be able to do things in one hour which can only be done in two or three.

And these demands we place on ourselves aren’t feasible they’re things nobody could fulfill. Now Horney is talking about unconscious should, but often our shoulds are explicit in our conscious thoughts. I should find a better job. I should save more money. I should buy a house.

I shouldn’t drink so much. I shouldn’t eat so much. I should get more exercise. I should get more sleep.

I should spend more time with my friends. I should spend more time with my family. I should spend more time working. And so a lot of our shoulds can be incompatible with each other, because, for example there just isn’t that much time for us to do all of that.

So we have this idealized version of ourselves, of what and how we should and shouldn’t be, and there’s no way we can live up to this version of ourselves.

And trying to do everything that we feel we should do can be very stressful and can cause us a lot of anxiety.

And then whenever we don’t live up to one of our shoulds we end up feeling guilty, because should statements come with a moral judgment: if I do the things that I should, and avoid doing the things that I shouldn’t, then I’m a good person. But when I fail to do the things that I tell myself I should, or do some things I tell myself I shouldn’t, i’ve committed some sort of moral offense, and so I’m a bad person, and I feel guilty. And the more this happens the more likely we are to start feeling depressed.

So what can we do about our should statements? Well anytime we find ourselves telling ourselves we should or shouldn’t be doing something, instead of just letting that should statement go unchallenged, we can start by asking ourselves why? Why should I or shouldn’t I do that?

We often take our should statements for granted without questioning why we believe we should or shouldn’t do these things. But once we start looking at these beliefs they often don’t hold up. Maybe they were things we learned growing up from our parents that reflect their values but not really our own anymore. Or they reflect some cultural or societal values that we’ve adopted without ever really thinking about them and maybe they’re not really that important to us.

And so once we start questioning our shoulds we often find we don’t have an answer to the question of why. And so we can start letting some of our shoulds go and not feel bad if we don’t live up to them, because we realize that we don’t really believe that we should or shouldn’t do these things. And so we don’t need to feel bad or guilty if we don’t follow them because they’re not really that important to us.

But what if we have an answer to why we think we should and shouldn’t do them that makes sense to us and so we don’t want to just dismiss them?

Sometimes our shoulds are pretty vague and it can be helpful to break down exactly what we mean by them, because even if we’re dedicated to being a better parent or working harder or not being so lazy, it’s hard to act on that without having a clearer idea of what we mean.

Maybe being a better parent means being more patient with our kids or spending more time with them. Or being more interested in things that are important to them.

And what about work harder? Maybe we don’t even know what we mean by work harder. It just sounds like something we should do. But we’re already working more than we want to and we’re coming home tired at the end of the day, and so even though there’s a voice in our heads telling us we should work harder, we’re already working as hard as we can. And so there really isn’t an “I should be working harder” to feel guilty about.

And what about I shouldn’t be so lazy? Well maybe we mean, we’d like to procrastinate less and when there’s something we need to do we’d like to just do it. Or maybe we spend more time than we’d like on our phones just killing time, and we’d like to do something more productive with that time. Or maybe after dinner we just plop down on the couch and watch tv all night, but I’d like to change that and start making plans to do things that I enjoy in the evenings. And so now instead of just not being lazy, we have specific plans about what we’d like to be doing. And these are much more actionable than just some vague notion like I shouldn’t be so lazy.

And one of the most effective things we can do about should statements is to express them as a desire or intention to do or not do something, because desires and intentions don’t carry the same moral weight as should, so they cause us less stress and anxiety and are less likely to leave us feeling guilty or like we’re bad people if we don’t follow through.

So instead of I should spend more time with my family we can phrase it as a desire I’d like to spend more time with my family or as an intention I’m going to do my best to spend more time with my family

Instead of I shouldn’t order in so much, it would be nice if I didn’t order in so much, or I’d like to start cooking more and eating healthier.

Instead of I should exercise more, I’m going to do my best to start exercising more.

Instead of I shouldn’t procrastinate so much, I’d prefer to not procrastinate so much and I’m going to do my best to stop putting things off and I’m going to try to do them right away.

So it can be really helpful to rephrase shoulds with less judgmental terms like I’d like to I’ll do my best to it would be nice if I’d prefer it if I plan to I’m going to try to

Now we can often think of should and shouldn’t statements as motivating. I should exercise more. I should stop procrastinating. I shouldn’t eat so much junk food. I shouldn’t watch so much tv. But the problem with using should statements to try to motivate ourselves is that they’re not actually motivating, and instead they often have the opposite effect, because when we fail to do something that we’ve told ourselves we should we can feel so bad about it and get so discouraged that we give up even trying anymore.

And should statements can make us rebel against them. If someone tells you you should or shouldn’t do something, does that make you want to listen to them and obey what they say? Or do you feel resentful and sometimes want to do the opposite just to spite them? Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do? And the same can be true when we try to tell ourselves what we should and shouldn’t do. And the more we tell ourselves we should do something the less we want to do it.

So reducing our should statements finding other ways to express our desires and intentions that aren’t as judgmental as shoulds reduces the pressure we place on ourselves to do certain things or to be a certain way, which leads to less stress and anxiety over these things, and makes it less likely we end up feeling guilty or depressed.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Cognitive Restructuring And Perfectionism

Cognitive restructuring is a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that helps us modify perfectionistic thoughts and see things from a different perspective.

Cognitive Restructuring and Reframing Thoughts

If you’d like to practice cognitive restructuring, you’ll find the questions from the video in the Cognitive Restructuring Worksheet (PDF):

In the next post we’ll look at the thought record, which guides us through the process of cognitive restructuring in detail. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Cognitive Distortions And Perfectionism

Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased patterns of thinking that distort reality. They lead us to perceive or evaluate situations and experiences inaccurately. Cognitive distortions play a big role in maintaining perfectionism.

The video below explains the following cognitive distortions, along with suggestions for how to break each pattern: All or Nothing Thinking, Overgeneralization, Mental Filter, Discounting the Positive, Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading and Fortune Telling), Magnification and Minimization, Catastrophizing, Emotional Reasoning, “Should” Statements, Labeling, and Personalization and Blame.

Cognitive Distortions in CBT

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased thought patterns that lead us to perceive reality inaccurately. They’re a way our minds have of convincing ourselves to believe things that aren’t really true. They show up all the time in our automatic negative thoughts, and they’re significant because our thoughts have such a big influence over how we feel and how we act. And when we treat these cognitive distortions as if they were facts, we end up feeling and acting based on faulty assumptions, usually in ways that contribute to things like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and countless other issues.

As we learn to identify cognitive disorders in our thought patterns, we become better at recognizing when and how our minds are leading us astray, which helps us see the ways in which our thoughts aren’t accurate; and makes it easier to reframe our thoughts and think about things in ways that are less likely to have a negative impact on our mood or mental health, and can help us start feeling better. So now let’s look at some of the most common types of cognitive distortions.

When we engage in all or nothing thinking we see things as black or white with no shades of gray in between. Something or someone is either all good or all bad. If we don’t do everything right we’re a complete failure. One bad thing happens and our whole day is ruined. Someone makes a mistake or disappoints us and they’re irredeemable.

All or nothing thinking is a hallmark of perfectionism. It leads to unrealistic standards for ourselves and others, which can negatively affect our motivation and set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. If you find yourself engaging in all or nothing thinking, try to start recognizing and acknowledging to yourself that things are rarely simply black or white, and start looking for the shades of grey in between.

Overgeneralization is when we see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of failure or defeat. You’re making dinner and you burn something and you think, i always ruin everything, i never do anything right. You’re in a rush to get somewhere and hit a red light and think, nothing ever goes my way.

Overgeneralizations are often stated in terms of always, never or nothing. If you find yourself overgeneralizing, look for exceptions, and try replacing words like always never or nothing with words like sometimes or some things. And this can help you see that one negative event doesn’t define everything, and helps make your thinking less negatively biased and more accurately reflect reality.

Mental filter refers to filtering out positives and dwelling on negatives. A mental filter is like one drop of ink that discolors a whole glass of clear water: that single drop of something negative colors everything. We pick one negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.

You get lots of positive feedback from your boss with one suggestion about how you could improve, and your takeaway is that you’re no good at your job, and you dwell on that one comment all day. You make a YouTube video that gets twenty positive comments and one person says how much they hate it, and you’re so discouraged you never want to make another video again. If you find yourself operating with a mental filter, learn to start asking yourself if there are any positives or even neutral things about the situation you’re overlooking, and then adjust your filter to let those aspects through as well.

Discounting the positive is similar to a mental filter, but instead of filtering out anything positive, we dismiss it and tell ourselves it doesn’t really count. We get a compliment or some praise and tell ourselves, well that doesn’t really count they’re just trying to be nice to me. Or we succeed at something, but it doesn’t really count because we tell ourselves anyone could do that, i just got lucky.

If you find yourself discounting the positive, take a moment to ask yourself, why doesn’t that count, what reasons do i have to just dismiss that? And most of the time we won’t be able to come up with a good answer. Which makes it harder to discount everything positive. And we can start giving ourselves at least a little credit when things go well. And there’s an exercise called three good things that i talk about in my video on depression that can help you stop discounting the positive, and you’ll find a time stamp link to that exercise in the description and pinned comment.

Jumping to conclusions involves interpreting things negatively without any facts to support our conclusions. When we mind read we make assumptions about what someone’s thinking based on their behavior without confirming with them what they’re actually thinking. If our partner is being quieter than usual we assume it’s because they’re upset with us. If we text a friend and they don’t reply fast enough we assume it’s because we’re not important to them or they don’t like us anymore.

We make these assumptions about what’s going through other people’s minds based on no conclusive evidence, it’s just our interpretation of their behavior, usually mixed in with projecting our own emotions into the situation. We’re feeling insecure about a relationship or friendship, and so we assume that their behavior confirms what we’re feeling and that they’re upset with us.

With fortune telling we predict the future, and that things are going to go badly, without any real evidence to back up the prediction. Again these predictions say more about how we’re feeling ourselves than they do about the actual reality of the situation. Fortune telling is a hallmark of the worrying that comes with anxiety or the hopelessness of depression.

If we find ourselves jumping to conclusions the best thing we can do is to simply ask ourselves, what are the facts of this situation what actual evidence do we have to support this conclusion? Is there any way to interpret the evidence to support alternate conclusions? Or is there any evidence we’re overlooking that suggests a different conclusion? And the goal isn’t to try to predict the right conclusion, but to recognize that there are lots of possible outcomes and we just don’t have enough information yet to know which one is going to come true. And so any conclusion we draw is going to involve jumping to conclusions.

With magnification and minimization we give greater weight to our perceived weaknesses and failures and to the strengths and success of others; and we give less weight to our own perceived strengths and success. It’s like looking through binoculars from each end. We look at our weaknesses and failures through the magnifying side of the binoculars, making them seem bigger and more significant than they actually are.

And then we reverse the binoculars when looking at our own positive attributes and successes, making them seem smaller and less significant than they actually are. And if you find yourself engaging in magnification or minimization, try imagining a friend or loved one in your shoes and see how you’d regard their qualities or results, and then see if you can’t be as generous to yourself in your assessment as you would be to someone else that you care about.

Catastrophizing is related to jumping to conclusions and magnification, and it’s typically what we do when we worry. We’re predicting the future and jumping to the worst possible conclusion no matter how unlikely it is. And we’re magnifying the consequences of this outcome and imagining it’ll be unbearable.

Catastrophizing often unfolds as a series of what-ifs: what if i made a mistake what if my boss finds out? What if i get fired what if i can’t find another job? What if i can’t pay my rent? And if you find yourself catastrophizing try asking yourself the following questions: you’ve already been asking yourself what’s the worst case scenario. So make sure to also ask yourself what’s the best case scenario? And then what’s the most likely scenario? And this helps you get a more balanced perspective and can help prevent you from automatically jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

And then ask yourself, if the worst case scenario did happen, how would i be able to cope with it? How have i coped with similar situations in the past? And this can help limit magnification of the consequences that so often goes along with catastrophization.

When we use emotional reasoning, we think the way we feel reflects reality. So we view ourselves and our situations based on how we feel, rather than on any external evidence. I feel this way therefore it must be true.

If we feel like an idiot that means we are idiots. If we feel anxious we know something bad is about to happen. If we feel depressed and hopeless we convince ourselves this means there is no hope. Or we feel angry so that means we must be being treated unfairly.

But the world doesn’t revolve around how we feel, and if we find ourselves engaging in emotional reasoning, we need to remind ourselves that just because we feel a certain way about something, doesn’t make it true and not to confuse feelings with facts.

The type of should statements we’re referring to here are the arbitrary rules we set for ourselves and others when we tell ourselves that things should be a certain way. I should make everyone happy. I shouldn’t make any mistakes. People should always be on time. When we use should statements we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. When the should statements are directed towards ourselves we set ourselves up for guilt disappointment and frustration, and when we apply should statements to others we can feel let down disappointed or angry.

Often we try using should statements for motivation: i should go to the gym more often; i should stop eating junk food. But presenting these as shoulds can drain our motivation when we fail at something we think we should do, because we feel so bad about it. And should statements can make us rebel, because nobody likes to be told what they should and shouldn’t do, even if we’re the ones telling ourselves what we should do.

If you find yourself engaging in should statements, try rephrasing them with less judgmental terms like I’d like to, or I’ll do my best, or it would be nice if. That way we’re still acknowledging to ourselves what we’d like to do, or how we’d like other people to act, but we don’t have to feel guilty if we don’t, or as angry when people don’t behave the way we think they should.

Labeling is a form of all or nothing thinking and overgeneralization where we judge and label ourselves or someone else, usually in a very negative way, based on a single event or behavior, or attribute that doesn’t really define who we or they are. We knock our coffee off the table and it spills and we label ourselves an idiot. We try to make plans with friends and no one’s available and we label ourselves a loser. When someone has to reschedule a meeting and we label them a selfish jerk. Or they make a mistake at work and we label them useless.

When we use labels we don’t take context into account we don’t consider anything beyond what’s in front of us at this moment. We’re just reflexively assigning a negative label and using it to define the totality of ourselves or someone else. When we apply these labels to ourselves it hurts our confidence and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed. And when we apply them to other people it increases hostility and leaves little room for communication. The antidote to labeling is to recognize that one act isn’t defining: just because i made a mistake doesn’t make me an idiot; if someone disappoints us it doesn’t automatically make them a selfish jerk.

Personalization involves holding ourselves personally responsible for a situation that’s not entirely under our control. We take total responsibility for an external event that occurs and ignore any other important factors. As a consequence we end up completely blaming ourselves when something goes wrong, even when we may be only partially responsible, or not responsible at all for the results. Our kid gets sick and we blame ourselves for letting them sleep over at their friend’s house. We’re late for dinner because our partner isn’t ready on time, and we blame ourselves for not making sure they left work earlier.

Or instead of personalization, we can blame other people for things that aren’t totally their fault while overlooking our own contributions to the situation. If you’d reminded me about dinner tonight i would have been ready on time. If you weren’t always working all the time i never would have cheated on you. If you find yourself engaging in personalization and blame, take a moment to ask yourself if there are any other factors you’re overlooking that contributed to the outcome. And recognize that just because you have some responsibility for how something turned out, you’re almost never going to be in a position where you’re 100 to blame.

And if you have trouble accepting that it’s not entirely your fault, you can try using a responsibility pie, where you write down all of the factors that may have contributed to a situation, and then make a pie chart assigning a share of responsibility to each of these factors to help illustrate how you’re not fully responsible for the way things turned out.

And for some more tips on how to combat cognitive distortions check out my video on cognitive restructuring and reframing your thoughts and please like and subscribe and check out my other videos for more tips on how to manage negative thinking.

Since cognitive distortions are negatively biased, they negatively affect our moods and how we feel. Cognitive distortions are a hallmark of issues such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and anger.

Learning to recognize cognitive distortions is important in CBT. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate in well-defined ways. As a result, they don’t take as much effort to modify as some thoughts do. We can treat all thoughts that fall into the same category of cognitive distortion in a similar fashion. And this makes it easier to reframe these thoughts in ways that help us feel better.

If you’d like to explore how you use cognitive distortions in your own thinking, the Centre for Clinical Interventions has a nice PDF worksheet (they refer to cognitive distortions as “Unhelpful Thinking Styles”). If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Letting Go Of Perfectionistic Thoughts

Instead of trying to change the content of our thoughts to make them less perfectionistic, we can change how we relate to our thoughts. Rather than trying to modify or replace our thoughts, we can simply be mindful of our thoughts. We just acknowledge them and then let them go.

Letting Go Of Thoughts

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

We have tens of thousands of thoughts a day but most of them barely register. And the ones that we do notice often aren’t even related to anything we’re doing at the time. Usually the best way to deal with automatic negative thoughts is to not give them your attention in the first place.

They’re like a clickbait headline that looks like it’s gonna be really interesting, but once you click there’s really nothing worth seeing and the best course of action is to just not click on them in the first place. But sometimes we can’t resist and we click anyway. And then we find ourselves going down that rabbit hole and keep clicking on another and another and another, at which point it can take quite a bit of effort to pull ourselves back out.

And the same is true once we start following our automatic negative thoughts. A big part of mindfulness is about learning to let go of these types of thoughts and refocus our attention in the present moment. But that’s often easier said than done for a couple of reasons.

First we tend to believe that if we have a thought it’s somehow interesting or important and something we should pay attention to, so we don’t want to just let it go. But of our tens of thousands of thoughts every day, most of them are just noise in our head, mindless distractions that don’t need our attention at all. And once we come to terms with this it’s a lot easier to just allow these thoughts to pass from our mind without even thinking about them.

But secondly, the thoughts that we tend to notice are the ones that provoke an emotional reaction. And these are not as easy to simply let pass from our minds, because as we’ve seen once our thoughts and emotions start interacting together, they feed into and reinforce each other. And as a result thoughts that carry some emotional weight are much more difficult to just let go, as the emotion acts as a kind of magnet, and keeps pulling these thoughts back into our head.

One way to let go of thoughts is to treat them as if they were just sounds going on in the background. We generally don’t pay attention to these sounds or think about them very much, and we just allow them to pass in one ear and right out the other. And we can do the same sort of thing with our thoughts, not give them any undue attention and think about them or try to figure out what they mean, and just treat them like mental noise in the background allow them to pass into our mind and then right out again.

Another metaphor for this way of relating to our thoughts is to simply treat our thoughts as if they were clouds passing through the sky, noticing as a cloud or a thought passes into our field of awareness, sticks around for a while, and then continues to float through the sky or through our mind until it passes away.

Or sitting back and observing our thoughts as if we were at the movies and watching our thoughts being projected on the screen in front of us, not actively participating or getting caught up in the action on the screen that is our thoughts, and just sitting back and watching them as they unfold.

But often it’s not that easy to just sit back and watch our thoughts, and in the next video we’ll learn some additional strategies and techniques we can use to help us step back from our thoughts and let them go called cognitive defusion.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Thought Records And Perfectionism

The most effective way to practice cognitive restructuring is to complete a thought record. In the thought record we write down:

  • Our automatic negative thoughts
  • The situations that triggered them
  • The moods, emotions, feelings, and physical symptoms or sensations we experience in response.

Then we identify the thought most responsible for how we feel, and use cognitive restructuring to come up with alternative and more balanced thoughts.

The Thought Record in CBT

There are a couple of different formats of the thought record you can download below. The first is based on Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky. The second is based on the thought diary from the Centre for Clinical Interventions. For this format there is a full two-page thought record, a condensed one-page version, and a filled out example of a completed thought record:

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Perfectionistic Core Beliefs

Core beliefs are our longstanding and deeply held beliefs about ourselves, the world and other people, and the future. They give rise to our thoughts and behavior. In this video we’ll learn all about core beliefs and how to identify our core beliefs. In the next post we’ll look at how we can start to modify our core beliefs.

Core Beliefs and Perfectionism

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube and formatted by ChatGPT.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), we usually focus on our current thoughts and behaviors and the relationship between these thoughts and behaviors and our moods and how we’re feeling. But where do these thoughts and behaviors come from? Why do you and I have different thoughts about the same situations, and why do you and I act differently under similar circumstances? One of the main reasons is that we have different sets of core beliefs.

Core beliefs are our deeply held underlying beliefs about ourselves, the world we live in, and other people that influence how we interpret our experiences and, as a result, affect how we think, act, and engage with others. Core beliefs are the tinted glasses through which we view things, each of us with a slightly or, in some cases, vastly different shade of tint.

The basic aim of CBT is to learn to change the way we think and act in order to change the way we feel. Core beliefs are important because they determine how we think and act. So if we can change our core beliefs, changes in how we think and act will naturally follow, which will, in turn, help change the way we feel. Not all core beliefs are negative, but for now, we’re going to just look at negative core beliefs because these are the ones that we want to be able to change in order to help us feel better about ourselves.

Negative core beliefs about ourselves are grouped into three categories:

  • Helpless core beliefs: “I am weak,” “I am out of control,” “I’m a failure,” “I am not good enough,” “I’m a loser.”
  • Unlovable core beliefs: “I am unlovable or unlikable,” “I’m unwanted,” “I’m unattractive,” “I’m different from other people,” “I’m bound to be alone.”
  • Worthless core beliefs: “I am worthless,” “I’m bad,” “I’m a waste,” “I’m toxic.”

Negative core beliefs about the world are things such as “the world is dangerous,” “the world isn’t fair,” “life’s too hard,” “things are stacked against me,” “the future is hopeless.”

Negative core beliefs about other people are things like “the people I love will always end up leaving me,” “you can’t count on other people,” “people will always let you down,” “people only care about themselves,” “it’s not safe to trust other people,” “others are out to get me.”

Now you can probably see how holding these sorts of beliefs could affect how we think and act and interact with other people. But in between our core beliefs and our thoughts and behaviors, there’s another level called rules and assumptions, which are also known as intermediate beliefs because they fall in between our core beliefs and our thoughts and behavior.

We can imagine the relationship between core beliefs, rules, and assumptions, and thoughts and behavior as if our minds were a tree. Core beliefs are the roots that anchor us and deliver water and nutrients through the trunks and branches (which are like rules and assumptions) up into the leaves that are our thoughts and behavior.

So stemming from our core beliefs, we make rules for ourselves, which are stated in terms of “I should” or “I must.” And then we make assumptions, which are “if-then” statements based on our core beliefs. For example, if we have the core belief “the world is scary,” we might have rules such as:

  • “I must always keep myself safe.”
  • “I shouldn’t take any risks.”

And assumptions such as:

  • “If I’m not careful enough, then something bad is gonna happen to me.”
  • “If I let down my guard, then I’m gonna get hurt.”
  • “If I don’t take any risks, then I’ll stay safe.”

These rules and assumptions influence our behavior. We act in ways that avoid violating our rules or to avoid the negative consequences or achieve the positive consequences of an “if-then” assumption. So in this example, we might behave in ways that allow us to avoid anything we perceive as scary or that provokes any anxiety.

These rules and assumptions influence our thoughts. In this case, they might lead us to worry a lot and always ask ourselves “what if this happens? what if that happens? what if, what if, what if?”

Other examples of rules could be things like:

  • “I must do everything right.”
  • “I should try to make everyone happy.”
  • “I shouldn’t show any weakness.”

And other assumptions could be things like:

  • “If I don’t try to make friends, then I won’t get rejected.”
  • “If I’m always nice to everyone, then people will like me.”
  • “If my relationship ends, then I’ll be alone forever.”

So that’s a basic outline of core beliefs and rules and assumptions. Now let’s look at how we can try to figure out what some of our core beliefs and rules and assumptions are.

Our core beliefs aren’t as accessible to us as our thoughts and behavior are. If we want to know what we’re thinking, we can ask ourselves “what’s going through my mind right now?” And no matter what we’re doing, we’re usually able to take a step back and notice how we’re behaving in the moment.

But if I ask you, “what are your core beliefs? What rules do you live by? What assumptions do you make about yourself, the world, and others?” then you probably don’t have an answer for me right away and may not even know where to start looking.

There are a number of ways that we can try to reveal our core beliefs and rules and assumptions. The simplest is to just ask ourselves, “What do I believe about myself, about the world, and about other people?” So just take a moment now and see if anything comes to mind to complete the statements:

  • “I am…”
  • “The world is…”
  • “Other people are…”

And then you can do the same thing with rules and start with these prompts and try to fill in the blanks:

  • “I should…”
  • “I should not…”
  • “I must…”
  • “I must not…”

And now for assumptions, start with “if” or “if I” or “if someone,” then “then.” Sometimes we can figure out some of our core beliefs by just looking back through our lives at the lessons we’ve learned growing up. Our core beliefs develop over time, beginning in childhood with lessons we learned from our parents—either explicitly through things they taught us or implicitly through things we learned through observation. We also learn from our interactions with other people in our lives who are important to us, like siblings, other relatives, teachers, role models, and friends and peers.

So one way to uncover core beliefs is to simply ask yourself, “What did I learn from these people about myself, about the world, and about other people? Did I form any rules or assumptions based on what I learned from them?”

Core beliefs also develop as a result of experiences we have as children. So think about your formative early life experiences and ask yourself, “What did I learn from these experiences about myself, about the world, and about other people? Did I form any rules or assumptions based on these experiences?”

And then you can look at people who’ve been influential in your life and significant experiences you’ve had since childhood and ask yourself the same questions about these.

Another way we can discover our core beliefs is to start at the top with our thoughts and work our way down. Now it’s possible to have a thought that sounds like a core belief that’s actually just a fleeting thought that doesn’t go much deeper. For example, if something goes wrong and you say to yourself, “I’m such a loser,” but you hardly ever say that to yourself, that’s not necessarily a core belief. But if you’re consistently telling yourself, “I’m such a loser” a few times a day, then chances are that is a core belief.

So any thought that starts with “I am,” “the world is,” “life is,” or “people are” could be a core belief, or it could just be a specific thought you’re having in that moment in response to something, and it doesn’t go any deeper than that. But if it’s something you’re telling yourself all the time, it probably is a core belief.

The same is true for thoughts about rules that start with things like “I should” or “I must,” or thoughts that include “if-then” assumptions. Sometimes they’re just thoughts that we’re having on the surface, but if we’re having these thoughts frequently, then that’s probably because they are a rule or assumption that we tend to live by.

But the other way we can uncover our core beliefs from our thoughts is to use what’s called the downward arrow technique. We take an automatic thought that we’ve had in response to a situation and ask ourselves if this is true, what does this thought say or mean about me, or about the world and how it works, or about other people?

For example, a friend doesn’t text us back, and we have the thought, “I must have said something to upset them.” So then we ask ourselves if this thought is true, what does this say or mean about me, or about the world and how it works, or about other people? They probably don’t like me. And if this is true, what does this say or mean about me? I don’t know how to talk to people. And if this is true, what does this say or mean about me? I’ll never have any friends. And if this is true, what does this say or mean about me? I’m unlikable. And if this is true, what does this say or mean about me? And if the answer is, “Well, it means I’m unlikable,” then we’ve reached the end and come up with our core belief: “I’m unlikable,” that’s responsible for the thought, “I must have said something to upset them.”

With a different set of core beliefs, we might have had a different thought in this situation. So, with the core belief like “people are selfish,” you might have had the thought, “What’s wrong with them? Why haven’t they responded yet?” Or, with a core belief like “the world’s a dangerous place,” then you might have had the thought, “Something must have happened to them. I hope they’re okay.” Or, with a core belief like “I’m likable” or “other people are considerate,” those might lead to a thought like, “Oh, I guess they’re probably just busy.”

For a more complicated example, let’s look at a situation that involves more than one core belief. I’m planning to go to a party by myself, and I start worrying: “What if I don’t know anyone? What if I get there and don’t talk to anyone? What if I embarrass myself? What if I get so anxious I have a panic attack?” So then I ask myself, “What does this say or mean about me, or about the world and how it works, or about other people? You can never know what to expect.” And what does this say or mean about the world and how it works? Bad things can happen at any moment. And what does this say or mean about the world and how it works? The world is scary.

So here we’ve come up with a core belief about the world. But if we keep going, maybe there’s more. What does this say about me, or the world, or other people? If I don’t take risks, then I won’t get hurt. And here we’ve discovered an “if-then” assumption that we live by. And what does this say about me, the world, or other people? I must keep myself safe. And so here we’ve discovered a rule that we live by. And what does this say about me, the world, or other people? I’m weak.

We can also uncover core beliefs, and especially rules and assumptions, from looking at our behavior. Rules and assumptions guide our behavior. “I should” or “I must” statements are telling us how to behave, and “if-then” statements are assumptions about what will happen if we behave in certain ways.

Going back to our last example, maybe my behavior is to get to the party, turn around, and go home. So what does this behavior suggest about rules or assumptions I have about myself, the world, or other people? Or more simply put, why am I acting this way? So I might have rules like, “I must keep myself safe,” “I must avoid anxiety at any cost,” or assumptions like, “If I’m around people I don’t know, then I’ll be too uncomfortable,” or “If I avoid social situations, then I’ll keep myself safe.”

Now we have a number of tools to help us uncover our core beliefs, rules, and assumptions, and you can work your way through all of them in the worksheet I linked to in the description and pin comment. But now, how do we change our core beliefs, rules, and assumptions in order to change the way we think and act, and as a result, improve our moods and help ourselves feel better?

Core beliefs associated with perfectionism include:

  • Failure is not an option
  • My value depends on my achievements
  • People expect me to be perfect
  • I should be better than everyone else

Rules associated with perfectionism include:

  • I must excel
  • I must not make any mistakes
  • I can’t afford to relax

Assumptions associated with perfectionism include:

  • If I don’t work harder, I’ll never accomplish my goals
  • If I’m not successful, I don’t matter
  • If I make a mistake, I’m a failure

If you’d like to explore your core beliefs, you can download the Core Beliefs Worksheet in PDF or Word format. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Modifying Perfectionistic Core Beliefs

The video below describes how we can start modifying and changing our core beliefs, which helps reduce perfectionism.

Changing Perfectionistic Core Beliefs

Core beliefs can be difficult to change and takes time. Progress is often gradual, but eventually, and often with the help of a therapist, we can at least modify even our most resistant beliefs.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Cognitive Defusion and Perfectionism

Cognitive defusion is a key concept from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). When we practice cognitive defusion, we let go of our thoughts without allowing ourselves to become “fused” with them. Or, if we’re already stuck in our heads and “fused” with our thoughts, cognitive defusion helps us de-fuse.

Cognitive Defusion

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

There’s a type of mindfulness based therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. And an important concept in acceptance and commitment therapy is the idea of cognitive fusion and defusion.

Cognitive fusion describes those times when we’re so tightly stuck to our thoughts that we become fused with them. We can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts and so our thoughts become our reality. And when we’re in a state of cognitive fusion we can feel removed from the world outside our thoughts, and from what we’re doing, and from the people around us, and it can be hard to pay attention to anything outside our head.

The opposite of cognitive fusion is cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion involves taking a step back from what’s going on inside our minds, and detaching ourselves from our thoughts. In this state of defusion we can observe our thoughts without getting caught up in or lost in them. And we can just allow them in and accept them and let them be and let go of them if we want.

One way we can practice cognitive defusion is to label your thoughts. Anytime you notice that you’re starting to become fused with your thoughts, you can simply take a step back from your thoughts by labeling them as thinking, or daydreaming, or worrying, or ruminating or planning—just labeling whatever type of thought you’re having with a one or two word description.

And doing this helps you take a step back from the thought and focus less on the content of your thought and more on just the fact that you’re thinking, or worrying, or daydreaming, or whatever the nature of your thought is. And this makes it less likely that you’ll get sucked in by those thoughts, or carried away by them, or become fused with them.

Or you can say to yourself: I’m just thinking, just worrying. And putting the qualifier just in front of the thought helps take away some of the power of that thought and makes it easier to let go. Or you can label the content of your thought as being “just a thought.” So if you’re thinking, “i can’t do anything right,” you can reframe this as “I’m just having the thought i can’t do anything right.”

Or if you’re thinking “this is going to be terrible” you can reframe that as “I’m just having the thought that this is going to be terrible.” Instead of “,nothing ever goes my way,” “I’m just having the thought that nothing ever goes my way.” And by prefacing our thoughts with the disclaimer that this is just a thought, we reinforce the idea that our thoughts are not facts. And every time we remind ourselves of this we take away some of the power that our thoughts have over us.

Or if you’re having trouble letting go of your thoughts you can imagine yourself writing down each thought on a balloon, and then releasing that balloon up into the air and just allowing that thought to float from your mind as the balloon floats away.

Now sometimes instead of just letting go of our thoughts, it can be helpful to look at the content of our thoughts, and just get a sense of how accurate or how biased that thought may be, and see if there may be a different way of looking at things and thinking about them that’s more helpful to you, which is something we’ll explore in the next video about reframing your thoughts and cognitive restructuring.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Overcoming Perfectionism With CBT

Over the next few pages we’re going to learn some techniques to help us respond mindfully to our obsessive thoughts. This can help reduce our urge to resort to compulsive behaviors or mental rituals.

How To Overcome Perfectionism With CBT

The perfectionism model in the video is adapted from Overcoming Perfectionism 2nd Edition: A Self-help Guide Using Scientifically Supported Cognitive Behavioural Techniques, by Roz Shafran, Sarah J. Egan, and Tracey D. Wade.

Being a perfectionist is hard and takes a lot of work. Maybe it feels like all of that effort is worth it or even necessary to get the results that we want. But there are more effective and less demanding ways to achieve and accomplish our goals. To understand why, let’s start by looking at a model of perfectionism.

This model is adopted from “Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques,” which I’ll link to in the description. One of the main components of perfectionism is that our self-worth is overly dependent on striving and achievement. If I’m not the best, I’m worthless. If I let people down, no one will like me. Without my successes, I’m nothing.

This leads to unrelenting high standards – I have to be better than anyone else and work harder than them. I need to surpass all expectations; I must excel. Mediocrity is not an option. We look at how to reduce this relentless striving for excessively high standards without sacrificing results in our other video on perfectionism. This also leads to cognitive biases and perfectionistic performance-related behaviors, and we’ll look at both of these in a minute.

If we meet our standards, we reappraise them as not demanding enough. “That was too easy. I could have done better. I need to push myself more next time.” This strengthens the cycle of perfectionism, and failure to meet our standards is met with harsh self-criticism. “I’m a failure. I’m so useless. I’m such a loser.” Sometimes, our standards are so high and rigid that they seem so daunting that we avoid trying to meet them altogether, which again is met with self-criticism. “There’s no point in me even trying. It’s too hard for me. I’m not good enough.”

Both of these results damage our self-worth, making us strive for perfection even more to compensate for our perceived inadequacies. We can reduce perfectionism by modifying our cognitive biases and our perfectionistic performance-related behaviors. Let’s start with cognitive biases, also known as cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking which involves seeing things in black or white terms – it’s either all good or all bad, complete success or worthless.

Changing all-or-nothing thinking involves recognizing that most things aren’t black or white but exist along a spectrum. “I made one mistake, that’s not so bad. If it’s not perfect, it can still be pretty good. I got almost everything done on my list, that’s a lot.”

Should statements: “I should eat less. I should be thinner.” The problem with should statements is that they come with an implied judgment that we’re bad people if we don’t do what we think we should. We often try to use should statements for motivation. “I should go to the gym more. I should stop eating junk food.” But shoulds can drain our motivation when we fail at something we think we should do because we feel so bad about it. Should statements can make us rebel because nobody likes to be told what they should or shouldn’t do, even if we’re the ones telling ourselves that. If we find ourselves engaging in should statements, we can reframe them as desires or intentions. “I plan to eat less. I’d like to go to the gym more.” This still gets our message across but lowers the risk of harsh self-criticism.

Discounting the positive: “It’s not a big deal, anyone could have done what I did.” If we find ourselves doing this, we can ask ourselves why doesn’t that count? What reasons do I have to just dismiss this? Most of the time, we won’t be able to come up with a good answer, which makes it harder to discount everything positive. We can start giving ourselves some credit when things go well.

Mental filter: where we filter out positives and ignore them while dwelling on negatives. “People don’t like my videos. What am I doing so wrong?” Instead, we can ask ourselves if there are any positives or even neutral things about the situation we’re overlooking and then adjust our filters to let those aspects through as well. “Some people don’t like my videos, but a lot do.”

Overgeneralizations, often stated in terms of always, never, or nothing. “I’m never good enough. I always mess up.” So, then we start looking for exceptions. “I did okay on our last project.” Replace words like never or nothing with sometimes or some things. “I’m not that good at some things. Sometimes I make mistakes.”

Double standards: “It’s okay if he makes a mistake, but I expect better from myself.” Double standards feed into perfectionism as we excessively strive to be better than others and criticize ourselves even if we achieve a level that we’d find acceptable in anyone else. Instead, it’s only fair to ourselves to hold ourselves to the same standards we have for others. It’s an act of self-compassion that helps counter perfectionism.

Learning to recognize and challenge our cognitive biases and modify cognitive distortions is a big step towards reducing perfectionism. Now let’s look at some typical perfectionistic behaviors.

Relentless striving in pursuit of goals: “I need to work harder.”

Constantly measuring progress: “I’m taking way too long in comparison to others. All of my friends are doing better than me.”

Excessive preparing and organizing: “I need to go over this again. I should make another list and memorize what I’m going to say.”

Checking: “I should go over this again in case I miss something.”

Reassurance seeking: “Can you read this over and let me know if it’s okay?”

Failure to delegate: “I need to do this myself. I can’t trust anyone else to do it well enough.”

Procrastination: “I’ll get to work after I have another cup of coffee.”

Giving up too quickly: “This is too much work. I give up.”

How do we start to change our behavior? Since thoughts and behavior are closely related, modifying our perfectionistic thinking like we talked about in the last section will help shift our behavior. Conducting what’s known as behavioral experiments is also important. Rather than engaging in our habitual perfectionistic performance-based behaviors, we experiment, trying out some less stressful and less demanding ways of acting to see what happens. If these new behaviors are successful and yield good results, then we’ll be motivated to continue with them and rely less on our old perfectionistic ways of acting.

These behavioral experiments also help reinforce changes in our thinking. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Let’s say we’re preparing an important presentation for work, and we’re having perfectionistic thoughts like, “This needs to be flawless. I can’t afford any mistakes. I must stand out and impress everyone. What if someone asks a question I’m not prepared for?”

The sorts of behaviors we might engage in could be things like obsessively perfecting the design and content of each presentation slide, checking and rechecking to make sure there aren’t any mistakes, memorizing the presentation, and rehearsing it repeatedly to fine-tune every aspect. Creating a comprehensive list of potential questions and rehearsing responses.

So, we start by modifying our thoughts. “I’ll strive for excellence but focus on doing my best. A small mistake won’t make any difference. I can’t prepare for every possible question, and it’s okay not to have all of the answers. I can respond based on what I know.” If you have trouble coming up with new ways of thinking about these situations, I have some videos that can help.

Now we set up a behavioral experiment to test the accuracy of these new thoughts and to try out new ways of acting in this sort of situation. “I’ll limit slide revisions to two times, then perform a thorough double-check. After that, I’ll refrain from further changes unless I find a mistake while rehearsing it. My focus while practicing the presentation will be on building confidence rather than memorization or perfect delivery. I’ll prepare answers for anticipated questions, but I’ll trust myself to be able to respond effectively to any unexpected questions that may arise.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What do I predict or worry will happen?” “I haven’t worked on it enough, and people will notice how unprepared I am. I won’t leave a good impression. I’ll notice a mistake on one of the slides while presenting and get flustered. I’ll stumble over my answers to some of the questions and embarrass myself.”

Afterwards, we conduct the experiment and ask ourselves, “What actually happened?” “I worried a lot that I wouldn’t be prepared and was nervous beforehand, but felt okay once I started presenting. It went well, and I got positive feedback afterwards. There were a couple of things I would have liked to have done differently, and I didn’t answer one of the questions that well. But stuff like that always happens, no matter how much I prepare.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What did I learn from this experiment?” “I can give an effective presentation without completely stressing myself out, obsessing over every little detail. There’s no such thing as a perfect presentation, and this was more than good enough. If something doesn’t go exactly as planned, I can handle it in the moment.”

This experiment reinforces our modified, more flexible thinking and helps us believe these types of thoughts more in the future. It helps us trust that we can be less rigid in our behavior and still accomplish and achieve what we need.

Going back to the model, approaching things in this manner allows us to give ourselves credit for the parts that went well and to be compassionate towards ourselves – not beat ourselves up about things we wished had gone better. Realizing that no amount of striving and hard work can eliminate the possibility of things not going perfectly.

One more example: we’re organizing a dinner party, and we want to make sure everything goes just right. So, our perfectionistic thoughts could be things like, “This place must be spotless. Every dish needs to be special. Everyone must have a great time.”

Our perfectionistic behaviors could be: “I have to find recipes that no one’s had before. I need to prepare everything myself to make sure it’s good enough. I should practice each dish a few times to make sure I get it just right. I need to make an extra dish in case there are any food allergies. But this is a lot of work. I should watch some YouTube to relax before I get started. Or maybe this is all too much for me to handle, and I should just cancel.”

So, we start by modifying our perfectionistic thoughts. “I’ll give the place a good cleaning, but nobody will notice if it’s not spotless. I can cook some dishes I already know how to make. The meal isn’t the most important thing – people just want to have fun with their friends.”

Then we set up a behavioral experiment. “I won’t obsess over every detail. I’ll make sure the place is tidy, but not worry about making everything look perfect. I’ll find one new recipe and prepare it once in advance to make sure it’s good. For the other dishes, I’ll make stuff I’m already comfortable with. I’ll get my partner to help with the cleaning and prep and ask them to make a salad.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What do I predict or worry will happen?” “The food won’t be anything special, and people will be disappointed. The salad won’t be good enough, and I’ll need to remake it myself. Someone will have a food allergy they didn’t tell me about and not be able to eat something. Some people will cancel last minute, and it’ll end up being boring, and people will leave early.”

Afterwards, we conduct the experiment – host the dinner party – and ask ourselves, “What actually happened?” “A couple of dishes weren’t as good as I’d hoped, but I still got a lot of compliments on the food. Someone didn’t show up, but everyone seemed to have a good time, and only one person had to leave early. I wasn’t as stressed as usual and able to just relax and enjoy being with my friends.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What did I learn from this experiment?” “I’m a good cook, and people like my food even if it’s not as good as it could possibly be. I don’t have to do it all myself, and I can ask for some help. People care more about seeing friends than anything else, and I have a better time when I’m more relaxed.”

Based on the successful outcome of the behavioral experiment, we start to actually believe our modified, less perfectionistic, and more flexible thoughts. Gain confidence that we can act in these less rigid ways than our typical perfectionistic-based types of behavior.

To overcome perfectionism, we need to adjust our unrelenting high standards, which we talk about in our other video about perfectionism. Modify our thinking away from the cognitive biases and distortions that are typical of perfectionism. Adjust our perfectionistic performance-related behaviors to make them less rigid and more adaptable and manageable. Finally, we need to learn to give ourselves credit for our successes and things that go well and not engage in harsh self-criticism if we fail to meet our standards or things don’t go exactly as we planned.

Check out my other video and free self-help course about overcoming perfectionism. Please hit the like button and subscribe to my channel. If you’d like to support my channel and help me make more videos like this, I really appreciate it. Please check out the donation links in the description.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

All Or Nothing Thinking And Perfectionism

All or nothing thinking is one of the main cognitive distortions associated with perfectionism. We see things in black or white terms, with no shades of grey in between. Things are either all good, or all bad. We’re perfect or we’re a failure. If we don’t accomplish all that we’ve set out to do, we’ve done nothing.

All or Nothing Thinking and Perfectionism

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

If you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious a lot of the time, or are struggling with low self-esteem or depression, one of the reasons could be all or nothing thinking. In this video we’re going to learn all about all or nothing thinking: what it is, why it can be such a problem, and what we can do to reduce our all or nothing thinking so that it doesn’t have such a negative impact on our lives.

All or nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased patterns of thinking that distort reality and lead us to perceive or evaluate situations and experiences inaccurately. I have a video that describes a number of different types of cognitive distortions that I’ll link to in the description. But i wanted to make a video just about all or nothing thinking because it’s one of the most common cognitive distortions and it can negatively affect us in a lot of different ways.

So when we engage in all or nothing thinking, we see things as black or white with no shades of gray in between. Things are either all good or all bad. If we don’t do something perfectly, we failed. If we don’t accomplish everything we’ve set out to do, we’ve done nothing. Someone makes a mistake or disappoints us and they’ve let us down completely. All or nothing thinking arises in all sorts of contexts so let’s look at some examples.

All or nothing thinking often involves how well we do at something. Either we completely succeed—we ace the test, we come in first place, we get a promotion at work—or we’ve completely failed. We get a b plus when the class average is a c, but because we didn’t get an a plus, as far as we’re concerned we might as well have gotten an f. Or we come in second place with a personal best, but because we didn’t come in first who cares that means nothing. We get a raise, but someone else gets the promotion we wanted, so our careers are going nowhere and we’re terrible at our jobs.

All or nothing thinking can also involve how much we accomplish. If we don’t complete everything we’ve set out to do today, then we’ve achieved nothing. We had 10 things on our to-do list but since we only knocked off eight, what a waste of a day, we got nothing done. Or we were going to clean the kitchen tonight, but after we did the dishes and put them away and wiped the counters and cleaned the sink, we were too tired and had to be up early the next day. So we went to bed before we got around to sweeping and mopping the floor, so we’re just so lazy. Or we cleaned the whole kitchen but it’s not spotless so we might as well not bothered cleaning it at all.

And all or nothing thinking doesn’t allow for any understanding or compassion or mistakes. We get impatient with our children and we’re terrible parents, even if it’s just one lapse over a stressful day in which we handled everything else really well. And we can apply our all or nothing thinking to other people. Someone does us a favor but they forget one thing and so it’s like they’ve done nothing. Someone makes one small mistake on a project at work and they’re completely useless.

So what’s the impact of all or nothing thinking? Well when we apply all or nothing thinking to ourselves, we put so much pressure on ourselves to hit that all level, that we can push ourselves too hard, which can leave us feeling really stressed out or give us a lot of anxiety. And when we don’t accomplish or achieve all, we come away feeling like we’re left with nothing, which can damage our self-worth and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed. And when we apply our all or nothing thinking to other people, it can damage personal and professional relationships.

And all or nothing thinking can lead to procrastination, because we know it’s going to be so much work to try to hit that all, all of the time, that we can’t even bring ourselves to get started.

And all or nothing thinking can make it harder for us to achieve our goals, because we give up halfway through when we realize all is no longer a possibility. And so since we’re ending up with nothing, we might as well save ourselves the effort and just give up now. I wasn’t going to drink on weeknights anymore, but i had a glass of wine with dinner so i’ve ruined today and i might as well just finish the rest of the bottle.

So what can we do about our all or nothing, black and white thinking? Well the simple answer is to learn to recognize some shades of gray in between, and to see things along a spectrum rather than on a binary scale. So how do we get ourselves to do this?

Sometimes a helpful first step can be to find a good enough compromise in between all or nothing. We can strive to get ten things done, but seven is going to be good enough. We don’t have to do the next three if we don’t feel like it. We can aspire to achieve the equivalent of an a or a plus on whatever we’re working on, but once we reach a b or b plus level that’s good enough, and we don’t need to worry about getting that extra bit of improvement if it’s going to take too much effort, be too stressful, and cause us a lot of anxiety trying to get there. And it also makes it less likely that we fail in ways that damage our self-esteem and can lead to depression.

But that’s only half the story, because it’s still not really seeing shades of gray. It’s just a single shade of gray in between black or white, which means that if we don’t hit that compromise not quite all but good enough level, we still can end up feeling like it’s nothing.

But achieving c level work instead of b or a plus, getting five of our ten things done instead of seven or ten, is still not nothing. Sometimes that’s all we’re able to do. Sometimes we could do more but the costs in terms of stress or anxiety are too high. And sometimes we could do more, but we choose not to because there are other things going on in our lives that also need our time or attention, or that we just want to do instead. And that’s okay.

So in order to recognize the shades of gray in between black and white, and to be able to accept results and outcomes across a whole spectrum of possibilities, instead of focusing on what we didn’t do, what we didn’t accomplish, what we didn’t achieve, we need to learn to reframe things in terms of what we did do, what we did accomplish, what we did achieve, even if it’s not everything or all we set out to accomplish or achieve. And as long as we can name just one thing, then we’re no longer at nothing. And maybe we didn’t do as well or as much as we’d hoped or wanted or expected, but at least we did something. We barely got started on our to-do lists, but at least we replied to that one email we’ve been putting off for days.

And even those times when it feels like we didn’t do anything, we probably did do at least something. We finished some tasks for work, and even if we didn’t do a really good job, at least we got it done. Or at least we got part of it done. And sometimes these things may not seem like a lot, and they’re certainly not all, but they’re still not nothing.

And even if we spend all day lying on the couch watching tv or, in front of our computers watching YouTube videos, well maybe what we accomplished is that we gave ourselves a bit of a needed break. We took some time to look after ourselves, to reduce the stress and anxiety in our lives, and made it easier on ourselves to get back to doing more things tomorrow.

And even if we do achieve or accomplish so little that it might as well be nothing, that doesn’t make us bad people. When this happens there are reasons it’s happening. Maybe we’re just too tired, don’t have the energy, or are feeling too discouraged or depressed to be able to bring ourselves to do much of anything. And so in these cases we need to try to extend ourselves some compassion and understanding, rather than beating up on ourselves and feeling bad. Because when we don’t achieve or accomplish whatever we set out to achieve or accomplish, being too hard on ourselves serves no purpose. It’s just not helpful.

We often feel like we need to be hard on ourselves in order to push ourselves to do more and to reach our potentials. And while this attitude may be able to provide some motivation in the short term, in the end it catches up with us, because it increases our stress and anxiety, which eventually can become too much for us to manage, and it’s discouraging it can damage our self-worth and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed all of which make it more difficult for us to do things in the future. So if we don’t achieve or accomplish all that we set out to do, or even most of it, it’s much better to be understanding with ourselves, and learn to practice some self-compassion and self-acceptance.

And if we need to do better next time, being kind to ourselves now is not going to prevent this. It’s not going to get in the way. But if we adopt an attitude of, I’m such a failure, i can’t do anything right, i got absolutely nothing done, well that can get in the way because it’s so discouraging and demoralizing it can affect our motivation, damage our self-confidence and self-worth and self-esteem, which can negatively impact the quantity and quality of work we’re able to do.

Now we can still acknowledge if we didn’t try our best, if we could have done more, or could have done better, without being too self-critical and putting ourselves down. And maybe we do have to do better next time, but beating up on ourselves isn’t going to help us do that. And then instead of being self-critical and beating up on ourselves, we can reflect on anything we did accomplish—anything we did achieve, anything that went well—and try to find ways to do more of that in the future. And then look at what didn’t go so well and figure out what we need to do differently next time so that things go better.

And everything we’ve just talked about regarding ourselves applies to our interactions with other people as well. Holding others to strict all or nothing standards can damage personal and professional relationships, and doesn’t really encourage people to change their behaviors, and instead tends to lead to conflicts or just leaves them feeling discouraged or resentful.

So if we’re able to shift our mindsets away from all or nothing thinking, and recognize that accomplishments and achievements occur across a broad spectrum rather than just on a binary scale, we’ll be able to do more and perform better, while reducing the amount of stress and anxiety in our lives, and making it less likely that we become depressed, while improving both our personal and professional relationships.

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