Letting Go of All-or-Nothing Thinking - Christine Kane

If you’re on a path of personal growth, of living consciously, or studying the law of attraction, or practicing gratitude, you may have experienced days or hours or weeks when you’ve gotten off course. Maybe you fell into an old pattern of despair. Or you let yourself have a bad day. Or some major trigger set you off, and even though you knew exactly what you were doing as you went into anxiety, you chose not to stop the old conditioning. Or maybe you felt like you couldn’t stop it because it was so out of control.

The question is not about whether or not you have these moments, days, or weeks. The question is this: What do you do after that happens? Do you say “Whew! What a ride I just took myself on! Let’s start again!” Or do you say, “God I just suck at this stuff. Forget it. Something must be wrong with me.” If the latter sounds more like you, then you may be prone to All-or-Nothing Thinking.

All-or-Nothing thinking is the platform of the perfectionist. It’s the voice that says, “If I take a risk, I had better be hugely successful.” Or “If I spend a year writing this book, it had better get published.” Or “Well, I sure have screwed up my word of the year this week. I guess that isn’t going to work out now, is it?” All-or-Nothing Thinking can wreak havoc on personal growth work and on attempts to shift old thought patterns.

The Secret,” “What the Bleep?” and all of the releases stemming from their popularity are bringing some excellent concepts to the general public. No longer is it just corporate sales guys getting to hear it from Tony Robbins. Or new-agey types quoting Louise Hay. Now it’s everyone. Which makes lots of potential for great things to happen. AND (not but!) it also has the potential to provide All-Or-Nothing Thinkers with yet another way to beat themselves up, and not benefit from the deeper work that results from these law of attraction practices.

My belief is that All-or Nothing thinking is the ultimate saboteur. It sets us up from the start to fail. And it is a very naive way to move through our lives.

In fact, often I gauge my own success by how I proceed in spite of my all-or-nothing voices. Do I dust myself off and start again? Do I learn to translate the situation differently? Or will I just give up and say, “I just can’t seem to do this right.” Too often, that’s what happens to people who think they have to do it all perfectly.

Let’s say you’ve spent 36 years of your life building up patterns of negativity and giving up on projects you start, and ridiculing yourself for being so lame. And let’s say you’ve recently made a conscious choice to set new intents, and to be aware of the Law of Attraction and to consciously monitor your thinking. You may even think that it’ll be pretty easy because it looks so easy in the movies you’ve watched! If, however, you are an All-or-Nothing thinker, you might get frustrated because it’s not happening fast enough or because you often find yourself thinking horrible stuff. You disregard the notion that 36 years of negativity might take longer than a few months to shift. It will take persistence, commitment, patience and kindness.

I know All-or-Nothing thinking well. It’s one of the many foundations at the core of eating disorders. It’s also one of the reasons why so many women have issues with dieting. When they fail, they call it “going off their diet.” And boom they’re done. When I was bulimic, I needed to be perfect at everything. Which is why I never succeeded at anything.

Recently, a friend and I were talking about how much I love working out. She was amazed because I genuinely feel good about doing it. She asked how I knew I wasn’t being compulsive or driven with it. (She was referring to my old eating disorder.) My honest answer was this: “I know I am totally healthy about it because I ate a big huge piece of chocolate cake two nights ago, and I still went to the gym the next morning.”

Back when I was bulimic, and even when I was recovering from bulimia, I would have shamed myself for days about that cake. I wouldn’t have gone to the gym because “There’s no point! I completely messed everything up!” And I would slump into feeling awful for days. And then I’d begin yet another pattern of trying to be perfect. When I finally did end up back at the gym, I’d brutalize myself and work out so hard with a forceful punitive energy so that I’d end up aching all over the next day. This pattern was impossible for fostering new habits.

I didn’t get heal those patterns overnight though. I went through all kinds of trials and setbacks. And I’d start over again with kindness. I learned over time how to stick with this work no matter what. The same kind of persistence and starting over again applies to Law of Attraction work.

So here’s the deal: If you’ve never gotten the message that shifting old patterns of thinking takes lots of persistence and work, and if you’ve forgotten that you have to keep choosing and choosing every moment to focus on the positive, then let me be the voice that encourages you not to give up, even if you’ve spent the last week or month in a trash heap of negativity. In fact, if you’ve gone into a rut, here’s your chance to re-commit and remember this truth: The minute you dust yourself off, take a deep breath, and say “Begin again, pal,” then you have succeeded. So, choose to succeed right now. And let me be the first to congratulate you.

My next post will have some simple ideas for how to move forward in spite of these bouts with All-or-Nothing thinking…

  • LOZ

    This has hit home like nothing else for me and after years and years of struggling with this I finally get it.
    I know this post is over 7 years old but my god I can relate. I had tears rolling down my face after reading this because I now understand. And am so comforted that so many other people feel exactly the same way.
    You have no idea how much this and your next post have helped me in such a short amount of time. πŸ™‚ Xxx

  • Julie

    Thank you so much for your insight on the “All or nothing” thinking. This is something I have struggled with for many years. I set goals and if I don’t meet those goals right away(next day) I believe I’m a failure and don’t bother to even try. I have suffered from an eating disorder for over twenty years and there are days I am paralyzed from doing anything because of my fear of failure. I am aware of how I am, just wish there were other people out there I could talk to.

  • Nikki

    Thank you so much for your words. I have had a morning of self doubt and discouragement after being in bed for 2 days sick. This is exactly what I needed and I’m so happy you are there to share. I have been at it for months trying to change my thinking patters and some days I’m on fire.. While others I feel completely extinguished. Anyhow, thank you love. Your words make a huge difference!

  • raine

    thank you for posting this and thank you for keeping your blog
    this helps me you have no idea how much

  • Shannon Johnson

    Hi Christine,
    I really enjoyed this post. I recently started a blog myself, and decided to search around for folks writing on similar topics so that I can better connected to the blogging community. I searched all or nothing thinking specifically, and this post came up. I particularly like the quote, “I gauge my own success by how I proceed in spite of my all-or-nothing voices”. This rings so true in my life. All-or-nothing thinking has created a life- long behavior pattern I have to mindfully choose to change everyday. When I’m feeling the all side of things, it is easy to be over-productive. But that only lasts so long before I crash into nothing-mode, where of course it easy to do nothing. What is hard is to force myself to mindfully inhabit a middle ground. I think that those of us who run on the intense side forget about the middle ground. We have to remind ourselves that it is by staying away from the extremes that we can live healthy lives.

    Please feel free to check The Self Actualizer’s Blog for Personal Development, and my post, All-or-Nothing Thinking – A Barrier to Self Actualization. See http://selfactualizer-blog4personaldevelopment.com). Thanks for a great post!

    • Christine Kane

      Thanks Shannon! And yes indeed, I think that the nature of intensity junkies is that we love that all-or-nothing stuff! πŸ™‚ Great that you started your blog! Woohooo!

  • Tiko

    Oh my gosh…I so needed this today…thank you…:)

  • Mary@GoodlifeZen.com

    What a beautiful article! I immediately subscribed to this blog.
    I’ve linked to this post and encouraged people to visit this blog in my post ‘Are you an ALL OR NOTHING person? Here’s How to Change’. I come to slightly different conclusions than Christine because I think this particular mindset has some merits as well as dangers.

    My suggestion for changing All or Nothing thinking is to focus on the delicate shades, and not on black and white. That could be the light at dawn, or the moment between sleep and waking or your loved one’s little sigh, or the way your weight rests on the soles of your feet.

  • Chris Owen

    I like what i’ve found HERE! God bless carolyn Manning and the Carnival for leading me here.
    This blog goes into my aggregator for further exploration!

  • Pamela

    Hi Christine,

    You are so true about the All-or-Nothing thinking. I may be the kind of person who gets up after a fall and straighten things up when there are problems but no matter how firm you are, you still have thoughts of giving up even the things you’ve worked so hard. Thanks to you, readers can rethink their lives and move on with their personal growth.

  • Mardougrrl

    Thank you so much for this…I have also just been in a horrible depression lately–the kind where you just resent even the POSSIBILITY that something, somewhere might feel better someday. The kind where you just want to be miserable, and are convinced that is all you’ll EVER be.

    In spite of myself, this sunk in (I am having a terrible time with the LoA stuff lately. It just doesn’t work for me. At all.). Thank you again.

  • Christine Kane

    zoinks! so many comments!

    Yogajenn, hey it might be time for a blog for you! I love the idea of the experiment. I’ve been doing that (and returning to it when I forget to do it in the moment!) for over a year now, and it lightens me up in ways I can’t begin to describe. (i also love finding nemo!)

    Thanks Joe! (and for providing me with the Robert DeNiro moment. It cracked me up.) I’m glad this opens up that “law of attraction” door just a crack…

    thanks Barbb!

    Susie, Great stuff as usual. I love that you are able to really document your process and progress. You go girl! (oh, and the comments section is officially off-limits for worrying about spelling and grammar. this is where we all just hang and make smiley faces and act like dorks. πŸ™‚ )

    Stacey, (see grammar remark in above comment!) And keep on showing up! (and thanks for showing up here…)

    Thanks Germaine. Maybe we’ll connect someday in S.A. or somewhere in between!

    Thanks Mikel… and about forgiveness. At some point, I promise, you will get to where forgiveness isn’t even necessary because you never condemned yourself (or anyone else) in the first place. it’s a remarkable thing!

    Mary, I’m glad you are finding your way out of the funk and learning to be kind to yourself. The best thing about Ask & It Is Given is that whole idea of feeling “just a little bit better.” Even the slightest thought shift can be huge. thanks for your kind words!

    Thanks Jack! (And of COURSE you were subconsciously directed…isn’t that a synonym for “google”?) I have found in my own teaching that people who are creative, artistic, sensitive and emotional tend to get caught up in those places and really can get mucked. We all need to be reminded about the power of persistence and practice. Thanks for your note!

  • Jack

    Hi Christine …. I stumbled (or was subconsciously directed) onto your blog site and was blown away when you hit my nail head as I recognized my all or nothing defeatist attitude as being one of the causes for my not pursuing success in all things. I look forward to reading more and applying the principles.

  • Mary


    Again, (and yet again), I find just what I need Today, its within your words. I have come to not only trust, but to expect that sort of thing. I finished reading this post, and immediately put “Begin again, pal” on a card for myself in spirted font and great big letters. I love that. Perfect.

    I’ve been in a “funk”. Disliking it all the while, wondering, “where is my joy?” I knew it was in there. But what was with this black cloud, the Eeyore feelings? I had to work extra hard to summon the energy to journal, keep on reading the books I’m in (Ask and It is Given, for one), etc. The light began to dawn again a day or two ago. (I knew it was there – just couldn’t see it). As I look back at the funk now, a day or two into more clarity, I see a jumble that just “is”. Its like winter. Nothing much happening, cold, wind, swirling snow. But aren’t wondrous things working themselves out somewhere below? Waiting to be born? Gathering the energy to sprout forth towards the sun? Assembling and arranging themselves in a perfect way? Out of confusion come new insights. I’ve learned that when I am able (try to, anyway) peacefully and kindly accept the current state of things in my soul, paradoxically, new doors and windows tend to open. Fighting it (self-criticism, pushing myself, being “mean” to myself, cracking a whip, self-judgement) tend to keep me stuck. That’s how it feels for me anyway. Finally, surrender, thoughts such as ” Whatever. This is just hard right now. It is what it is” I’ll keep walking the walk. ” And whala!! A little sun comes through. I learned about acceptance and surrender from Melodie Beattie, and the profound and simple truth of it still astound me. For me, letting go is just that. Putting down my end of the rope (tug of war with myself). Surrender to the confusion, struggle, imperfection, lack of whatever it may be. Getting there is often a meandering path, but the relief is profound. And then, “Begin again, Pal”. (again, I love that). Thanks Christine.

  • mikel


    Thank you for your blog. I usually start my mornings with a random Google on some aspect of creativity and Oneness, and today I enjoyed finding you.

    For me, ongoing acceptance of my past choices & forgiveness for all things, no matter how small, have played a huge(!) role in who I have now come to be. You don’t use those same words, but your intent is the same. Without being able to forgive my past choices, even recent ones, I would not be able to move past the “All or Nothing” paradigm, and make a new choice. Its a great habit to practice and 100% guilt-free.

    Great blog! You are a powerful writer.

    Manic Reality

  • Germaine

    I have to tell you that it’s so amazing what happened, I finished watching “the Secret” on dvd for the first time, and the very first thing I did afterwards was read your blog and I almost couldn’t believe what your post was about, truly, truly amazing!!

    I will certainly tell Brendan you like his music, thanks for that! he is very talented indeed!

    Have a very blessed day!

  • Stacey

    So funny – Christine, you wrote sub”mess”ion when you referred to the essay I sent in to WNC Woman. I will be chuckling about that for a while. And yes, I agree, you never have control of the outcome, but *something* good always comes from showing up. πŸ™‚

  • Susie

    Wow, I just noticed I completely mis-spelled gratitude (gratidue?) Oh, well!

  • Susie

    So this past summer I started a journal, then I started keeping a gratidue journal, then I started my own Blog, then I watched “What the Bleep” then I started reading “The Artist’s Way” and finally I’ve seen “The Secret.” And just earlier this week I realized how far I’ve come, how much I’ve changed and just how truly happy I am. I’ve seen quite a bit of growth in myself since I first started my journal this summer; I’m becoming more aware of my surroundings, I’ve learned to be more open, and I’ve learned to be more gentle. Had I started all of this at once, I would have been over-whelmed and fallen into All-or-Nothing Thinking. Thankfully though, the Law of Attraction brought me each step when I was conscious and ready.

    I’m not saying that any of this has been easy, it has taken a lot of time, practice, patience, kindness and persistence and it has all been worth it. So often when we get stuck in the All-or-Nothing way of thinking, we also start having a lot of “regrets.” In life, I like to say that there are no regrets, only lessons and each step I’ve taken to get to today has also brought along a lot of lessons. I still have a long way to go and a lot of lessons to learn, but it has been and it will continue to be fun and rewarding.

    P.S. I hope you have a great show tonight, Christine….Wait, I’ve been to several of your shows, I don’t have to “hope” it goes well, I KNOW it will go GREAT!

  • barbb

    as always, thanks for your post. bb

  • Joe

    Christine, thank you so much for this post. A very close relative and close friend suffer from eating disorders, and your writings have given excellent insight both in how they think, and how i’ve let their thinking creep into my own. I’m not one to usually embrace things like “living consciously” or “the law of attraction”, but I’m definitely going to contemplate and re-read this one periodically to become (in the long-run) much more aware of this thinking. And I really love that “Begin again, pal”, b/c I know that’ll stick with me.

    PS – You’re really good at this stuff, do you know that? Really good. (cue Robert Deniro in Analyze This saying “you – you’re good” like 10x times)

  • Christine Kane

    Hi everyone, I’m performing in about an hour, so I have to write these responses pretty quickly…

    Stacey, I’m glad this was timely, and you never know what could happen with your submession. Everything’s a learning experience!

    Hi kate, Thanks for the note! Commitment is another great thing that can keep you rolling. Commitment to imperfection! That’s how I have to write songs (and blogs) is just start by allowing it to stink!

    Caren, This is one of those things I always need to remind myself of course. I write it because not enough people are out there talking about the persistence behind the law of attraction! I talk to lots of people who give up too quickly!

    Well, thank you Tom. I appreciate your kind words. And of COURSE I edit and rewrite. With blogs, I’m a little less inclined to spend the same amount of time on each one. But with songs, I’m a re-writing fool! It’s not so much about perfectionism.. but every single line has to feel right to me before I know it’s done! Thanks for your thoughts!

    Hey PTC, welcome back! The Secret is wonderful. I think you’ll like it, as long as you are militant about being kind to yourself while you work with it!

    Kathy, Thanks for that honesty. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. When I’ve missed a week at the gym, it’s so tempting to say “Well, it was a nice ride while it lasted!” But I just get back up and go. (Be really really gentle with yourself the first time back!) And cold weather can definitely lead you into those kinds of thoughts for sure!

  • yogajenn

    A couple of mantras that I used (and still do sometimes!) include:

    – ‘Just Show Up’ – I would get into my car and begin driving in the general direction of whatever it was I was challenging myself to attend, and if I couldn’t quite get there, or if I got there but couldn’t quite get out of my car, I would still congratulate myself for getting out of the house. More often than not, I would truly show up, but not place high expectations on myself to shine as brightly as I thought I SHOULD if it just wasn’t in me at that time. This was once my healing journey was underway of course – before that it was ‘go hard or go home’ all the way. Once I began to have some genuine compassion for myself, it was so freeing to be gentle and kind to ME, regardless of what I did or didn’t do.

    This is a bit extreme but a few years ago, an amazing psychologist introduced me to the idea of treating all of these challenging situations/people as ‘experiments’. I’m sure many people have heard of this but to live it and give yourself permission to not do what was constantly expected of you was revolutionary to me!

    The extreme part was that I arrived for an appointment with her after a horrendous morning of bingeing and purging. But this psychologist suggested that ‘perhaps I needed to purge that morning, and perhaps it’s okay.’ That rocked my world! She knew that as my awareness and my anxiety grew, I needed my old coping mechanism, and if I could look back – without judgment – and learn from it, that is the best outcome we could ask for. She asked me to put my ‘2 X 4’ down and stop beating myself with it, and I nearly fell over! It amazes me now to look back and see how merciless I was with myself, and how I just didn’t see any options to that way of being.

    The other mantra is –

    – ‘Just Keep Swimming…’ This is from ‘Finding Nemo’ and Dory would always say it when she would forget what she was doing or where she was going (she had lost her short term memory). This one always makes me smiles too which can help tremendously to lighten up all-or-nothing thinking.

    Like anything you are trying to shift, it’s always occurs on a continuum, and behaves like a Pendulum. You tend to begin at one extreme, then recognize it and want to change, this usually causes a swing to the other extreme, and then slowly, gradually, with practice, you find a place of balance in the middle. It’s like balancing on one foot – you never find that perfect static place of balance and just stay there – you are always micro-shifting, re-balancing, coming back into balance and so on.

    Once again, I apologize for the long post! Yikes!!

  • Kathy

    Based on all the responses saying how timely this post is, it is clear that you’re tuned into the universe once again. I have been trying to start a more healthy eating and less sedentary lifestyle. I was doing well – walking every day, logging my food intake, not drinking alcohol, keeping a gratitude journal, feeling good about it, etc. until it got really cold here again. I never joined the gym so there I was back to my sedentary ways thinking – that’s it, I can’t do it. It’s too cold to walk and so I might as well start eating desserts and drinking wine again, not logging anything. What I need to do is realize it’s ok and simply start again. Go join the gym. Stop those bad habits. Revive the good ones. Thanks Christine, for putting a name on my all-or-nothing thinking issue!

  • palmtreechick

    Hey Christine!

    It’s been a while. I caught a few minutes of Oprah last week when they had the woman of “The Secret” on. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see the whole thing. Have you seen this video? If so, what do you think of it?

    I went to a weekend seminar last year that dealt with all the stuff it was talking about and need a little “refresher.” It looks like a good dvd so I’m thinking of getting it.

    I so get the “all or nothing” attitude too. It’s annoying to be this way. Gets very frustrating.

    Hope you’re well!!

  • ChickiePam

    Hi Christine,
    I just wanted to let you know that the link to “practicing gratitude” didn’t work for me. When it didn’t several times, I checked the others and they all worked. I am soooo very grateful for your blogs! I come here whenever I am hainvg one of “those moments” cuz I know that I can “feel the love” here, reboot and move forward.

  • Tom

    Hi Christine,

    First, a long-overdue compliment. Your blog is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to go for a quick infusion of Spirit in th world of work. Your eloquence and humor are rarities in the blogosphere.

    Re: this post. I never really thought of myself as a perfectionist (more an imperfection-ist) but I sure identify with that all-or-nothing mindset. An old book I’ve found helpful is “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David Burns. Despite its new-agey subtitle, it contains very practical information for those of us who need to satisfy our left-brains before our hearts can get the message. I only finished the first couple of chapters, but it was a real wake-up call for anyone who tends to see each stumble as a complete trainwreck.

    @Stacey: I understand how hard it can be to find time/energy to rewrite, and I hope your essay is well received. But as a fulltime professional writer, I must say writing and editing is what separates the mediocre from the good, and the good from the great. Christine, I wonder how many of your blog posts (or songs!) escape rewriting? (PLEASE don’t tell me everything you post is first draft! It would make me feel like a complete loser and make me want to totally give up!)

    Oops, there I go again! πŸ˜‰

  • Caren

    Beautiful, Christine! And, I’m wondering if you write of things you’re needing to remind yourself…

    It was a true “ah-ha” moment when I wrote to you about self-sabotage, and you were generally surprised by that term. It wasn’t a part of your vocabulary. That exchange really helped shift my thinking, and I’ve definitely been in a more compassionate, forgiving space with myself. AND I don’t HAVE to figure out *why* I choose to fall in the hole even though I see it! At some point, I’ll wake up in there (even when I’ve got a soft blanket, and I’m all set up with cookies and a TV) and go – oh, wait! This isn’t where I wanted to be! And climb outta there, and continue to move forward.

    I picked up a little book around Christmas-time, which really emphasizes changing by baby-steps. It goes into all the science behind our brain chemistry, and why big changes trigger shutting down. That book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life, helped the perfectionistic all-or-nothing part of me see *why* that approach won’t work – causing another little shift.

    And that’s how it works for me – making a choice each moment — which is where meditation and mindfulness come in. All these different strands of my life come together, and who knew? I was just doing what felt right at the time.


  • Kate

    Thank you for the reminder. I’m really struggling with perfectionism right now. I thought I had dealt with perfectionism in my life, but apparently not. I recently quit my job (after an emormous amount of second guessing) and now I’m trying to figure out how to “find my passion”, use the “law of attraction” etc. I keep trying to figure out what I “want” and I’m absolutely certain that at some level I know what I want – how could I not – but how to let it bubble up? I started a blog and made exactly one entry. Started a professional web site and blog and worked on it exactly one day. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until a few days ago – perfectionism. Rats. Rats. Rats.

    Your blog is one of the best out there. Thank you so much.

  • Stacey

    What a timely post! Just last night I was addressing my own brand of perfectionism: about a month ago I wrote an essay for WNC Woman’s 1000 words and a picture series. I gave it for review to my writer/editor/perfectionist husband and he said it was good, but needed some work. I know writing is rewriting, but I’m a busy mom and midwife and the rewriting never got done. Last night I remembered one of my favorite quotes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” And I sent off the essay. Hopefully you will see it in a future issue or you can check it out on my blog, http://www.myfriendoprah.blogspot.com Thanks again for a great post, Christine.

  • Christine Kane

    Hi Susanne, Thanks for your honesty here! One of the things that Wayne Dyer says that I’m reminded of in what you wrote is that people often want to wait until the “feel” spiritual before being spiritual. He says, “No! Just BE spiritual!” I love that. It includes ALL of it. Also, your last paragraph sums it up. A little progress is better than none at all.

  • Susanne

    And again you are so right. That’s precisely the thing I struggle a lot with: overcoming the perfectionist within and beating myself up for not being perfect. I thought there was something wrong with me because it took me so long to change my habit patterns. I have learned to do the things I want to do any way I can and start over every day.

    I have learned that eating a whole bag of potato chips nowadays doesn’t have to lead to a two week binge. That skipping exercise for a couple of days doesn’t mean that I have to give up exercizing for the next year or so. And that there is no magic switch inside of me that I have to find and turn in order to become a better person. I just try to stay conscious and to choose as mindfully as I can.

    I used to hope for the magic potion that would make me a perfect person.

    One thing that has helped me tremendously was the saying, “As long as you are alive there is more right with you than wrong.” and learning that 15 minutes of walking are better than no exercize, that 10 minutes of practicing may count, and that “housework done incorrectly still blesses the family.” And I had to realize that if I waited for my life to provide me with the perfect opportunity or time to do the things I want to do I might as well wait until my life is over.