Making Progress Against "All-Or-Nothing Thinking"

One of the Life Pits I often fall into is "all-or-nothing thinking."

What "all-or-nothing thinking" is, essentially, is this: if I can't figure out how to do or be something all the way to my ideal, I feel paralyzed to doing or being anything at all. This works its way out in things such as:

  • "If I am going to eat a cookie, I should go ahead and eat every cookie that exists. Or, I will NEVER be able to eat any cookie EVER again." 
  • "If I can't workout for 150 minutes a week like the recommendation says, I should not even bother to get any exercise in at all." 
  • "If I can't workout for 60 minutes, I don't have time to work out." 
  • John Wesley said something like, "I don't have time not to pray," so since I'm not even wanting to pray for four hours a day, I can't bother to discipline myself to pray for 10 minutes. Or five. Or one. Same with scripture reading. 
  • If something is broken in my marriage or my friendship, nothing that may be good about it actually counts. The entire thing is irretrievable, and I need to approach it defensively because it will surely end in the worst-case scenario. 
  • If I can't mop the floor, there's no reason to sweep it either. 
It's amazing how prevalent this way of thinking is in my mind. It's unhelpful because it often keeps me from taking any positive action and leave me feeling hopeless about future change. I struggle with my attitude overall, then, because I feel like I am either doing things perfectly or failing entirely.

But one of the things the Bible calls us to is to have sound or sober judgment. One instance of this is Romans 12:3.  "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you." (NIV)  

Over the years I simply have been unable to have the kind of clear-headed self-assessment like we're encouraged to have in this verse. My temptation is to go all the way to blind condemnation borne out of disappointment and shame. I heard the call to sound self-assessment there, but it didn't strike me as life-giving. At best, I saw it as a call to pop whatever happy or hopeful balloon may have been floating by. Even though I strongly hesitate to judge others' performance according to all-or-nothing criteria, I'd be very quick to condemn myself on the same ones.  In my heart that has usually gone directly to "You, Katie, have been weighed in the balance and found wanting."

All-or-nothing thinking buddies up with shame to distort my perception and paralyze progress.

But to be of sound mind, to put a moderate estimate upon one's self as opposed to thinking too highly of one's self (you can check out the great study tools at for yourself) is the actual charge in this verse.

Yes, thinking "I'm the best one ever! I never get it wrong! No messing up here! Jesus sure must love me because I'm a good disciple" is also incorrect. But to go directly to "You Loser! How could you even think Jesus would want to use you, let alone accept you!" is also not using a sound and sober judgment. That's just a voice of shame, not God's voice. And one of the many lessons that we need to practice in our life-long pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus is--hearing his voice! Let's listen more to the truth and less to just whatever I'm thinking or feeling today.

After all, back at Romans 12:3, Paul says that this sober-mindedness is in the context of "in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you." Even if it's small faith; let's offer it up to God.  Let's not forget while we're reading Romans 12 that Romans 8 came before--"Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." (Romans 8:34)

So, yes, today I may have blown it. And I miss the mark, a thousand times. I have! I do! I'm slow to grow a lot of the time. I struggle with things; the same things; for years and years. But the other side of the balanced assessment is that I am also accepted by Jesus, who loves me, values me, and does in fact have a good plan for me. This is the same Jesus who has began a good work in me and will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

It's good to be in the process. It's good to be taking baby steps. It's good to start out with doing the smallest possible thing to improve if that's what it takes. Baby steps are not for the weak losers who can't take bigger steps. They are for people who are learning to walk!

So if it's 60-seconds of working out today; hey--you worked out. If it's reading and repeating to yourself one sentence out of the Bible today; hey--you have the beginning of a spiritual discipline there. Do what is actually do-able for you today and offer it up to our loving Jesus who can sympathize with our weakness (see Hebrews 4:15) and is interceding for us.

What do you think, friends? Do you have any experience with this struggle? How have you dealt with it?

The Soul of ShameP.S. May I recommend to you the book The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson? It is a helpful explanation about how shame operates in our minds and hearts, and how we can fight back. It's helped form some of my thinking on this topic.

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