The Underrated Comfort of Extremes
Guest Blog by Cheryl Delaney, MS NCC LPC
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“I’m a terrible dancer!” extremes
This thought is my own, but my clients have lots of thoughts along similar lines: “I’m the worst father,” “This year has been a complete disaster,” “I’m going to make a fool of myself at this party.” All of these thoughts can lead to intense problems. Believing you’re a terrible father might have you feeling guilty, frustrated, and stuck and actually growing more distant from your family. Telling yourself that the year’s been a complete disaster, you might feel hopeless, angry, and depressed. Thinking you’re about to make a fool of yourself might make you feel self-conscious, lonely, and inadequate. All those feelings are draining, and they make our hours feel longer and more painful.
These thoughts also have one particular feature in common: they all have a lot of “Either-Or” going on. I talk about myself as a dancer as though there are only either terrible dancers or amazing ones. I’m not amazing, but I’m also not the worst dancer the world has ever seen. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s even a thing that actually exists. Who would be rating? Would that person have to dance once and only once or would their dancing possibly be a bit better and a bit worse from day to day, song to song? Might they get better, in fact, the more they keep trying?
If thinking in extremes isn’t realistic, why do we love extremes so much? Why do they show up in so many different parts of our lives?
Either-or is comforting. In the types of thoughts we’ve already looked at, they’re there to do a bunch of different things. They reinforce our values (to be a good father, to enjoy life and experience pleasure, to have great social experiences), protect us from disappointment (to keep our hopes in check, to be self-deprecating before someone else has a chance to tell us we have shortcomings, to keep us from swaggering so much that we can’t actually back it up) and give us a sense of control. For more information about this way of thinking and perfectionism, click here.
That last one is one of the biggest reasons either-or thinking is comforting. Who doesn’t want to have some sense of control or predictability? At a broader, more general level, extremes take less energy than in-betweens. You only need to be aware of two options: Best or Worst, Biggest or Smallest, Awesome or Terrible. It takes a lot more time and a lot more energy to stay aware of nuances and ambiguities. All-or-nothings tend to sound a lot less boring! It’s much bolder and more interesting to speak and write in terms of extremes. I’ve made categorical, either-or statements in this blog post because qualifying everything slows it down and my writing gets cumbersome and stuffy!
Finally, extremes are also energizing. How much effort will you put into being the kind of dad you want to be if you’re starting out at “eh, probably okay-ish, there may be some room for improvement” vs. “I’m the worst father in the world!” There’s firepower in exaggerating the scale of the problem because saying “maybe I have some room for improvement” might not be enough to push us off the couch when we’d rather watch TV than play pretend or give a kid a bath. Furthermore, most of us prefer clarity over ambiguity. Maintaining a shades-of-gray worldview is taxing and sometimes even feels risky, like we’re just making excuses, creating the perfect opportunity to end up on a slippery slope. Certainty feels like solid footing and involves far less reconsidering: you make a single call and stick to it.
Call to mind some of the rules you make for yourself: “I’m only allowed one snooze and then I have to get up,” or “never check work email over the weekend.” Would one infraction cause you any harm? Probably not – but as soon as you get into quibbling with yourself over whether this one counts or that one could be excused, you’re drained and it feels like you might as well let go of the whole system. One of the most powerful advantages of hard-and-fast rules like that is that they free up your mind to spend time with different things.
Given all of the comfort, the certainty, the reliability and peace of mind, why would we give up either-or, all-or-nothing style thinking for a life of ambiguity and nuance and uncertainty? What is there to be gained from seeing things in shades of gray and purposefully inviting complexity into the picture? What if we were able to find the positives in imperfection? What are the tradeoffs and would they be worthwhile to you? What might happen, for example, if we took the thought “I’m going to make a fool of myself at this party,” and instead you had the thought “I’m curious how this party is going to go. I’ll probably have a way better time if I’m less focused on what other people are thinking about me than what they’re thinking and feeling about everything else!,” what would that be like? Is that thought believable? How might it change the experience?
All-or-nothing thinking has tons of advantages and it’s built into most of our thought habits at every level. It protects us from disappointment, simplifies our thinking and communication, and saves us energy and ambiguity. It also has its downsides.
Where do the tradeoffs fall for you?
You can contact and find more information about Cheryl Delaney MS NCC LPC below:
Want to read more? Here are a few of my related blog posts you may be interested in checking out!
– “How Your Negative Thoughts Can Hurt You”
– “Perfectionism, How Does It Affect You?”