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  • Writer's pictureNeil Parekh

“All or Nothing” Thinking Has Not Served Me Well

Updated: 6 days ago

“All or Nothing” Thinking. When I read those words in Ambrose Wilson-Brown’s blog post for Shining Light on Shadows, I said to myself, “Wow. How did he know?” When we first met and decided this episode would be about mindfulness, I didn’t really know what that meant. I’ve thought of mindfulness as being intentional, deliberate and/or calm. I’d never thought of it as the opposite of me.

According to Ambrose, “Research suggests that [All or Nothing] thinking is a reaction to the need for control, and it can be linked to trauma. People with certain conditions, such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, may be more likely to develop [All or Nothing] thinking.”

I don’t think I know another way to live. If I do something, I’m all-in. If I don’t give it my best or if I don’t do something as well as I think I can, I feel like I’ve failed, or that I’ve let someone down. I don’t know how to do something at half-effort.


I will discuss these issues and more on a new show that I launched with Dawn Helmrich, “Shining Light on Shadows: A Candid Conversation About Mental Health.” Ambrose Wilson-Brown, a mindfulness coach, will be our guest. You can watch the show Thursday, June 27 at 7pm CT / 6pm ET or the recording on Facebook, Twitter*, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram* and my website.


I’ve been going through a cycle the past several weeks. (Frankly, it’s a pattern of behavior that has repeated itself with some regularity over the past thirty-five years but I guess I’ve been feeling it particularly strongly more recently.)

  • I get an idea about doing something or have an assignment.

  • I think it through and build it up in my head. Slowly, it becomes bigger and more complex.

  • Soon, the idea of what I wanted to do is overwhelming. I don’t know how to start it. The more I think about it, the bigger it gets.

  • I get stuck for a few days.

  • Then, eventually, I start working on it. And it flows.

  • I finish the project (e.g. report, blog post, photo editing, etc.) and it goes well.

I was one of the top students in high school, but never developed great work habits/study skills. I did well in school, but more than once when I had to make a presentation or hand in a paper, I just wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t going to be as good as I thought it should be, I couldn’t face it.

My wife and I think often about a specific assignment I had in college. It was an end-of-semester paper for a relatively easy going professor. It shouldn't have been a big deal. However, I built up a theory that incorporated the equivalent of several different theses and wanted to tie it all together. Any one of those individual ideas could have been a full-fledged paper. I had notes and index cards everywhere. I got to the point where I wasn’t going to turn it in because it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t what I thought it needed to be. Pam encouraged me to narrow the focus of the paper and turn it in. I got an A.

Even this blog post was difficult to start. I hadn’t written one for the past few episodes. I’d built it up in my head. Once I sat down to write, it flowed.

Ambrose wrote about the “feelings and thoughts” associated with “All or Nothing” thinking: Self-doubt, Procrastination (aka Avoidance) and Fear. I live a lot of my life with those emotions.

From his blog post:

  • Self-doubt is a lack of confidence in oneself and one's abilities. It involves questioning one's own decisions, actions, and worth.

  • Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing tasks or decisions. It often involves avoiding tasks that must be completed by focusing on less important or more enjoyable activities.

  • Fear is an emotional response to perceived threats or dangers. It can manifest as anxiety, apprehension, or dread about something that might happen.

At the same time, however, I do know that I am good at what I do. I just keep getting in my own way.

Imagine if I didn’t struggle so much.

Is mindfulness the key?


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