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How to Shift All or Nothing Thinking Into Compassionate Accountability

Sometimes our brains take us into the realm of extremes, the place of all or nothing thinking. This way of thinking is often quite harsh and not compassionate. These are a few examples from my real life where I’ve drifted into this kind of thinking:

  • A friend canceled plans with me, and I thought “I have no friends.”
  • I made a scheduling mistake and then thought “People think I am unprofessional.”
  • My morning felt off/strange, I spilled my tea, and just generally felt grumpy. I told myself “Today is gonna be shit.”
  • I’ve taken a break from social media and have thought “Nobody is going to remember me.”

Whew. I invite you to pause and take a breath with me. Do these statements bring up any particular feelings in your body, mind, or heart? I notice tension in my chest and a sort of buzzy feeling in my head.

Take another few breaths if it feels good. The consider: Can you relate to any of these statements? Are any memories or experiences coming to mind from your own life?

Noticing All or Nothing Thinking

When you engage in all or nothing thinking, you can tend to take one experience or one detail and allow it to tell your whole story. For example, when a friend canceled, I jumped to the extreme conclusion that I don’t actually have friends. I decided, in that moment, that if one friend canceled, that meant that I had NO friends. (I know this isn’t a fact, but iat the time, it feels like the truth. Ya know?!)

The feelings and thoughts that followed this extreme thinking were pretty yucky ones to be honest. When I tell myself the story that I have “no friends,” it becomes easy to blame myself, shame myself, and focus on my not-enoughness. OUCH– this really hurts.

Furthermore, this energy can become a sort of trap, I’ve found. After this experience, I felt too vulnerable and insecure to put myself back out there with friends for a while. I didn’t want to risk “failing” at friendship again. So, you can see that the all or nothing thoughts can create a domino effect pretty quickly. And, again, OUCH.

Practicing Compassionate Accountability

If and when I notice myself slipping into extreme thinking, I am doing my best to invite in self-compassion + accountability, or what I like to call compassionate accountability. To me, this is a sweet place that falls between pressure and avoidance; it’s a space of gentle acknowledgment and support.

The first step of this process is to notice and name the all or nothing thinking. I try to be as simple and direct with myself as possible, saying something like “Oh, hey… that sounds pretty extreme.” Then, I invite myself to talk to myself the way I could talk to a friend. This usually means honoring the feelings that are coming up– “Yeah, this is disappointing and I feel sad today.” Next, I hold myself accountable to the task of taking care of ME. It can look something like this: “I am feeling disconnected right now. What would help me feel more connected to others today?” And then I do my best to figure out the next best step, a small act of care of connection that I can initiate.

This process helps me tell a true story about myself, rather than an all or nothing story.

Staying Patient

As with most things, compassionate accountability is a skill that takes time to become familiar with. If you have been engaging in all or nothing behavior regularly, it will take practice to create a new thought process for yourself. Remember to be gentle and patient with yourself along the way. Change doesn’t happen overnight. 
As you explore the stories you tell yourself and commit to self-compassion, you may enjoy prioritizing a few self-care practices. You’ve got this!

*Photo Credit: Teddy on

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