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Why understanding your failures is crucial to success.

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

*Clicked here from the Jan 2024 newsletter? Save time by scrolling down to the image of doughnuts for the best point to continue reading*

Sing pointing to All or Nothing
All or nothing thinking. Negative mindset

Here I’m discussing how, despite our best planning, thinking can be the enemy and sabotage our attempts at change and success... time and time again.

Y'know, when you set your heart on something, then mess up and feel utterly lousy and motivation is gone?

We often have biased beliefs and thoughts. These can be deeply held, just experienced as part of our personality, and that means that they’re rarely noticed or examined. (Also often referred to as ‘mindset’.)

One of the biggest unhelpful thoughts that I see wrecking a client's attempts at change is black and white thinking. Also known as all or nothing thinking. We can all be guilty of this, but to consider whether this is a big deal for you, think about this scenario:

You’ve decided that you want to start eating healthier. You’re all fired up and enthusiastic - you’ve collated some recipes, planned your shopping lists and are putting more thought into your work lunches and snacks.

You start on Monday. All is great in the first week, you’re very pleased with yourself. Second week is going well, then Thursday of the second week turns into a stressful day – you’re late for work as you couldn’t find your keys, the boiler is playing up and you can’t get anyone round to fix it, there’s some family tension rising up again.

Whatever it is, when a box of doughnuts is making the rounds in the office for someone's birthday, you find yourself polishing one off with your morning coffee. In the afternoon there’s still some hanging about, so you find yourself reaching out in the break room, and that’s another one down.

Selection of donuts at the office
Example of the problems maintaining motivation

So, right now, where does your mind go?

With black and white thinking, when a person’s near 100% success rate is suddenly shattered then they feel like an abject failure.

This often goes along with unhealthy levels of perfectionism.

Maybe you’re thinking:

What’s the point, I should’ve known I couldn’t hack this, I’m so weak. I’ve f@&^ed it… may as well eat whatever the hell I want this evening/ this weekend. I can always start again on Monday!”

Image of 2 identical heads - one angry, one sad
Inner Critic. Imposter Syndrome. Self-criticism

Then maybe that inner critic kicks in further and reminds you of everything else you’re tried and not achieved well enough (in your opinion).

And before you know it, you feel pretty

inadequate, utterly miserable and find

yourself comfort eating and lacking any motivation to get back on track.

So, on the scale below, those 2 regretted doughnuts would have you suddenly swinging in your mind from Perfect at one end straight to Utter Failure at the opposite end.

All or nothing (or black and white) thinking

Arrow with )% failure at one end and 100% Perfect at the other
Perfectionism can sabotage our best efforts at change

Can you see the problem with this?

What about all the grey??

In this example, this hypothetical person did great on 10 out of 11 days, then not as well as they wanted on day 11. Where would you actually rate that on the scale above?

It’s definitely not a 0% achievement is it? Yet the person is feeling and acting as if they’ve totally failed.

There's a massive gap there between how they perceived they've done and the reality of the situation.

A massive reality gap, where the truth lies somewhere in the grey, rather than at either of the two extremes.

The Reality Gap in how perfectionists see the world

And now, because they have (wrongly) perceived themselves to have completely failed, their behaviour of now giving up on healthy eating for a few days is actually going to take them closer towards failure!... towards the left of the scale.

So it's not the original slip up that's the problem, but how they react to it.

And how are they likely to feel about themselves after a few more days of 'failing'? They may pick up again, but there's also a good chance they won't, or won't consistently as they'll keep falling into the same thinking trap.

Do you recognise this pattern in yourself? This can be present not just for new goals or New Year’s resolutions but can hold us back from optimal performance at work, add to work-related stress and affect us in our personal goals too.

I've used the example of food and eating, as this is something that most of us can identify with, but the above can apply to all kinds of contexts.

What can you do about this negative thinking bias?

  • Regarding the past - take time to look at where you've not achieved past goals? Did you fall into this trap? Try to explore the situations non-critically, without judgment. Remind yourself this is really common, and you're only human. Imagine this is someone else's situation and you are just calmly looking for patterns, like a distanced, objective scientist with a clipboard.

  • For the present - awareness is everything. Taking a breath and taking time out to consider what's going on before the emotional downward spiral has taken hold can be really helpful.

  • Sketch out the all or nothing thinking scale (above) and mark where your gut instinct or immediate reaction says you are on it.

notepad and pen
Take some time to explore your thoughts around not achieving a goal 100%

  • Then, note down all the things you did well before the slip up. See if you can work out an approximate percentage in order to bring a more rational approach to the situation. Then mark on the scale where you think you are now. If it helps, imagine this is a work task, and you're going to get assessed on your accuracy .

  • Hopefully this will help you close the 'reality gap' before the inner critic gets too carried away!

  • Ask yourself what would I tell a friend if they were in this exact situation, disappointed in themselves and about to give up. Imagine you care about them and want the best for them and are giving them supportive but truthful advice. What advice would you give them?

Is it very different to the internal dialogue you have going on?

Why are they deserving of decent advice but you're not?

Whatever your internal dialogue is saying to you, can you imagine saying it to them?

If not, why not? What would it do to them?

This should help you realise how:

The inner critic/ perfectionist is often plain wrong.

And also, that ANYONE would feel unmotivated and miserable if they're hearing that message telling them they've failed because anything but perfection is unacceptable.

Hope that helps!

Published by Dr Jill Williams, January 2023, Rethink Therapy (incl. Uptrained Brain program)

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