The Danger of All or Nothing

May 01, 2020

Remember Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Maybe you’ve had one or two of those lately. Some (bad hair) days are truly atrocious, but often we use “catastrophe” language as a dramatic default.

I could just kill her…
That was literally the worst thing that could have happen…
Never in a million years did I see that coming…
I would die if that happened to me…
She’ll never recover... 

And those were simply reactions to when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt broke up. Seriously, I have said ridiculous, exaggerated statements over articles in Entertainment Weekly. For you, it may be when the sports star misses the tie-breaking shot, your favoriteTV series is canceled, some juicy gossip gets unleashed, a friendship betrayed.  Of course, it’s hyperbole. But still, words and mind-sets matter.

Yesterday I shared my victory story of embracing Joy and Sorrow (literally). I hope you let both the simplicity and the challenge of that advice to heart. If you’re wired as an optimist, it’s easy to lean into joy as a default - often minimizing real pain you are facing. And if you're naturally more of a “glass half empty” person, you are probably prone to melancholy and doubt. Leaning totally on the sorrow we feel easily lead to “this is the worse thing ever” projection about the situation you’re in. Conversely, over-reliance on blind positivity can lead you make naive, simplistic decisions that are nothing more than band-aids to very complex situations.

When we are all or nothing with our emotions, we tend to be all or nothing in evaluating the situation we are in. In normal times, we simply think of this as “disposition.” (the Greeks described the melancholic or sanguines temperaments). But in times of crisis and complexity getting overly attached to one state cuts off your ability to thrive. An “all or nothing” approach - either a “catastrophic” or “magical” mindset - distorts reality and our real ability to act make tempered, wise choices.

My encouragement to embrace multiple, even seemingly contradictory, emotions within you is because the next step is to embrace multiple possible outcomes. Yes, something totally awful could happen. But then something else happens that shifts your perspective. Then something you never saw coming happens. We can never say “Well, in the end it was good (or bad)” because there really isn’t an “end.” Good times or bad, life continues to unfold, and with that how we make sense of what happened evolves as well. And it’s hardly ever black or white. Life is too rich, complex, and nuanced.

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