This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

This is probably the most dangerous and one of the most common thought-mistakes. This is thinking in black-or-white terms. It’s also called all-or-nothing thinking. The real world has very few absolutes. Very few issues — very few causes of setbacks — are black or white. They consist of innumerable shades of gray.

Becky thinks if she’s not a millionaire, she’s a failure. Of course, if she’s not a millionaire, this belief will make her feel bad unnecessarily. Jeff thinks he must either be his ideal weight or he’s a fat slob. This kind of all-or-nothing, one-extreme-or-the-other thinking will cause him unnecessary misery whenever he is not at his ideal weight.

Edmund Burke wrote, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” If you do nothing because you can only do a little, that's based on extremist thinking. Specifically, it is the mistake of all-or-nothing thinking. It makes you defeated unless things are ideal, and since life is almost never ideal, it is a way of thinking that curtails positive action and prevents positive emotions.

Thinking in an extremist way makes it easier to think about things. You can separate issues cleanly, and then position yourself on one side or the other, end of story, no more thought required.

But reality is full of shades of gray, so although you’ve made your task easier, you’ve greatly increased your chances of being wrong. As a congressman once said on the issue of whiskey:

If you mean the demon drink that poisons the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life, and inflames sinners, then I am against it. But if you mean the elixir of Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort little crippled children, then I’m for it. This is my position and I will not compromise.

Almost every issue is like that. But the way our brains are set up, it keeps pulling us to one side or another in an effort to avoid living with the ambiguity. But ambiguity is reality. It would be in your best interest to live in that ambiguity, although this is difficult to do. But just because you don’t do it perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing at all. (wink)

Alistair Ostell, a researcher in England, tested school principles to find out to what degree their thinking was black-or-white. Here’s what he found: People who frequently thought in black-or-white terms had more emotional problems and more health problems.

People who thought more in shades of gray were less stressed by their jobs, enjoyed better health, and got more enjoyment from their work.

There are real consequences to the accuracy of your thinking.

Learn to catch yourself making this mistake (extremism) and learn to recognize it as a mistake, and you will avoid some negative emotions you don’t need.

I once did a speech in Toastmasters (a club that helps you learn to speak in public) on the day before Saint Patrick’s Day. The assignment was to give an “inspirational speech.” I wrote and memorized a presentation about Saint Patrick, and then rehearsed it thirty-seven times start to finish, flawlessly. (I actually counted because I wanted to see how many times it took to know a talk by heart.)

A key element of my speech was the mystery: The audience wouldn’t find out I was talking about Saint Patrick until the end.

But the Toastmaster that day (the Master of Ceremonies), in her opening remarks, told the brief story of Saint Patrick — essentially summarizing my talk before I gave it. That really threw me off. When I got up to speak, I said, “The Toastmaster gave away my punch line.” Then I felt embarrassed I’d criticized her. By then I was really distracted and couldn’t think of the next line of my speech.

It was a crummy speech and I’m sure it was uncomfortable for the audience to endure.

In the Toastmasters meetings, after you talk, someone comes up to evaluate your speech. My evaluator had a lot of negative things to say.

For someone who had been anxious about speaking, this hit me pretty hard. I went home feeling embarrassed and ashamed of myself, and really down about the whole thing.

And you know what that means. You’d better know what that means by now! Whenever you feel down, check your explanations.

As soon as I got home, I checked my explanations, and I found two thoughts that qualified as irrational. They were the main source of my bad feelings: “I’m not cut out for speaking,” and “I’m not an inspirational speaker.” Both of these are the mistake of extremist, black-or-white thinking.

After I uncovered those, I came to my senses. I stopped feeling bad and I realized I had simply made a mistake. I should never memorize a speech. It just doesn’t work. I also realized that if I ever had an element of mystery in a speech again, I would check with the master of ceremonies to make sure nobody would give away my punch line.

In other words, after realizing that my fretting and negative emotions were being generated by unreasonable thoughts, I stopped fretting and actually solved the problem.

After uncovering the two extremist assumptions, I no longer felt demoralized about my speech, or about public speaking in general. My thinking became more rational and more effective — and quickly — because I knew what to look for.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.

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