The Space Between

We all have personal thought patterns, neuro-pathways in our minds that are well-traveled and familiar.  These thought patterns act as lenses, coloring our perception of the world within and around us. Like most of our behaviors, our thought patterns actually become habitual. We fall into them because, well, we always have. Habitual, however, does not equate to healthy. In fact, habitual is usually more closely associated with detrimental outcomes than beneficial.

As I'm learning, one of my most detrimental thought processes is also one that I seem to apply to every situation in my life. I engage heavily in what's known as "all or nothing" thinking. In other words, I deal in absolutes. I'm either skinny or fat, employed or worthless, successful or a complete failure. Unfortunately for me, if I fall short of the upper limit of these dichotomies, I immediately classify myself as completely missing the mark. My mind simply ignores the space between, the gray area, the potential to achieve partial success. And so I spend a lot of time feeling inferior simply because I've gotten used to thinking this way.

Dealing in absolutes has many drawbacks. One of them is that it robs you of the ability to celebrate progress. Let me explain. Many of my goals are made in an effort to bolster my self-worth. They inevitably include weight loss and fitness. I set goals of say, running 4 miles a day, every day. If I manage to run 4 miles a day most days, or 3.5 miles a day every day, most people would consider that positive progress, right? In my head, I would see myself as missing the goalpost, falling short of the my personal goal of 4 miles. Unless I actively challenge these thoughts, I internalize my own assumptions that I am no better than the version of myself that started running in the first place. 

Another pitfall of all or nothing thinking is that it adds to your anxiety and ultimately shrinks your world without you even realizing it. Trying to live life in black and white is like trying to put a square peg through a round hole, it's unnatural and leads to a gradual contraction of experiences that you are able to consider "successful." I mentioned earlier that my thought patterns prevent me from seeing the space between, which is where much of life takes place. When you cognitively eliminate the space between, you eliminate your tolerance for experiences that dwell there. I'm seeing now how much I have missed out on because of the way I think. Imagine being asked to take a trip with friends and thinking "if it doesn't all go according to plan it will be a disaster" or "if I don't love it, I'll probably hate it" or "if I can't wear that bathing suit, I can't wear any and I won't go." More often than not, I was unable to imagine scenarios of having a wonderful time with a few kinks and would therefore catastrophize and decline the invite only to experience FOMO (fear of missing out) and even jealously. 

Obviously, I have other toxic thought patterns (catastrophizing, perfectionism, etc.) that contribute to an overall state of anxious existence. The beauty of this situation, however, is that once you can identify your demons you can actually flex some mental muscle and shrink the bastards down. I could not have written about this a year ago as I didn't know what "all or nothing" thinking was, nor that it dictated my actions without my consent. As humans, we have a staggering level of cognitive complexity, so much so that we utilize auto-pilot settings to minimize our mental noise. Being on cruise control is great for tasks like laundry or skincare routines, but not so much for goal-setting, decision-making, and critical thinking. Learning to exert control over my thoughts has been crucial in reducing my anxiety and expanding my potential to feel joy.

I now try to see life as a water color painting, where there are no harsh lines and each color bleeds into the next. After living so long without a gray area, I am finding it's a pleasant place to spend my days. I can give myself some grace when I don't live up to one of my impossible self-expectations and I can celebrate milestones along the way to being successful. I am allowing myself to say yes when I've conditioned myself to say no. We are not ever all or nothing, but rather a mixture of both. Life is lived on a continuum and we have the freedom to slide back and forth as our circumstances and conditions change. As I learn more the only goals I want to set for myself are to be rigid in my flexibility and to live always in the space between.


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