Written by QCMHA Research Coordinator Nyla Ward
I’m the kid that always hated participation trophies because for as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with all-or-nothing thinking. In any given situation, I will associate success with unrealistically-high standards, and compromise my quality of life in order to achieve it. This binary way of thinking has caused me to associate any performance short of perfect, as a failure.
By engaging with this cognitive distortion, I’ve struggled constantly when taking tests, interviewing and participating on sports teams. In any of these contexts, I used to find myself dedicating hours of work, practice and training to perfect skills, understand theories and become the best possible competitor. As a result, I thrived on success, and
leveraged past failures as constant motivators to drive me. However, this led to an incredibly toxic cycle, as my fear of failure pushed me to constantly improve, grow and develop, regardless of the cost.
Recently, I’ve begun to recognize the negative implications of “all-or-nothing” thinking in
a test environment. After spending 14 hours in the library, eating one meal, and getting 4 hours of sleep daily, throwing myself into dedicated study sessions with no boundaries began degrading my lifestyle. I started treating sleep, hobbies and exercise as luxuries. I convinced myself that because I scheduled my days by the minute and had clear goals and visions for the day, that I was in control and would succeed based on pure determination, grit and effort. However, as I began over-exerting myself and recognizing that my body was running of fumes, this loss of control led to panic attacks, where I started to worry about the implications of not being able to meet all of my goals and completing all of the projects by relevant deadlines. This loss of control and constant state of panic heightened my fear of failure, as I began to recognize that I was not able to physically exert myself any further, and yet, was still unable to accomplish my goals.
This was my breaking point, and caused me to really re-evaluate how I handle stress and my personal workload. I’ve focused on trying to reframe how I look at problems, and try to set baseline “completion” criteria. When tackling problems, it became important to identify what key objectives had to be addressed in order to complete the problem. At that stage, I focused on taking a step back and moving on from the task, and only circling back to continue working on the project if I had extra time. I’ve learned the importance of saying “no” when taking on new projects, and building boundaries into my responsibilities in order to avoid overexertion. Beyond that, finding supportive and empathetic people to talk through problems and challenges with has become invaluable, and instrumental in overcoming this adversity. Overall, learning to accept that it’s ok not to give 110% in every role all the time, is something that I think needs to be de-stigmatized. I encourage others struggling with perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking to take a step back from achieving success at any cost necessary and set personal boundaries to improve your quality of life .