Thursday, September 5, 2013

Inside The All-Or-Nothing Brain

The cycling brain is used to extremes. It's used to rules and schedules and well-planned events. It's also used to the total lack thereof. It can totally do spontaneous and random. What it's not used to is something in the middle. Any middle. I'm great at going to the gym every day during the work week, or not going for two weeks at all. I'm fine with planning a party in detail for months or randomly deciding at 3 PM that day to have a get together that night. I rarely have part of a plan.  My brain just has a tough time comprehending things that are "in between", and it literally makes me feel physically uncomfortable.

This type of thinking can have it's positives. In those situations that require serious planning and dedication, I'm your woman.  At the same time, this black or white thinking can be quite detrimental.
A lack of a gray area creates little room for error or growth. If I am trying to correct something, or create a positive habit, it must generally be done little by little. To the "average" person, a small improvement puts you on the right track. To the "absolute" thinker, if you've not accomplished your goal right away, you've failed. You have to start all over again, or give up all together.

While this absolute thinking is very characteristic to the cycling brain, there are tricks that you can use to "retrain" your brain and become more comfortable with some gray areas. Here are a few things I've learned over the year, many to the credit of my therapist.
  • One bad hour does not make a "bad day". You can still have 23 great hours. Clearly with a 23:1 ratio, great prevails. Similarly, a bad evening doesn't make a bad weekend, bad day doesn't make a bad week, bad week doesn't make a bad month, and a couple of bad months does not make a bad lifetime. 
  • Find something gray (or silver or some variation of gray) that you like. Wear/carry it with you every day to remind you that gray areas can be beautiful too - it's not all black or white. This may sound cheesy, but I've personally done it and the constant, physical reminder is a quite powerful. 
  • Try to eliminate words such as always and never. Replace them with often, frequently, rarely, infrequently, etc. The same goes for words like "all" or "nothing".  Find terms that illustrate your point but aren't so absolute, that don't rule out every single other possibility. 
  • Focus within - why are you feeling so all-or-nothing? Is it a value that you've always held? Is it something you've just always done and it feels un-changeable because you can't imagine doing it another way? Have you gotten hurt when being more flexible with your thoughts or actions? 
  • How is this way of thinking limiting you? What is the worst possible outcome if you allow yourself to be even just a little more flexible? I'll add the exceptions that you're deathly allergic to something, it's seriously illegal or immoral or would really hurt someone else. But in the majority of cases, allowing some flexibility is probably not as awful as it feels it might be. 
I encourage you to try this experiment for one week: allow yourself to think in the gray. Allow yourself to be ok with the nebulous, the unsure. Try to replace your absolute words, thoughts, and actions with slightly more flexible ones. So much anxiety can stem from being uncomfortable with the unknown. The more comfortable you are able to get with it, the less anxiety you may experience. Even within the confines of this experiment, avoid the all or nothing judgement. If you slip up and think "always" or "never", it's ok. You don't have to be perfect at seeing the gray areas either. Just try, and see what happens.

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