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The All or Nothing Approach: Is It Damaging Your Self-Esteem?

24/06/2014 14:18 BST | Updated 24/08/2014 10:59 BST

I have often described myself as an 'all or nothing person' - which is really just a polite way of saying that I find it hard to stick to my decisions and that I swing like a wild pendulum between one kind of behaviour and another. I can often be found vowing to a whole new way of life; whether it be the latest yoga fad, or a decision to adopt some sort of health-based exclusion diet. All this in pursuit of a perfect, wholesome life that I envisage for myself, but have yet to come close to achieving. Over and over again I start some all-guns-blazing plan and then, in no time at all, I fall dramatically off my own purpose-built wagon, and go back to my old ways, normally after some sort of binge style epic fail (cue an hour spent by the kitchen fridge eating ham and cheese straight from the packet, washing it down with chardonnay straight from the bottle. I jest, of course. I would never behave in such an appalling manner. Ahem.)

Given the rather 'silly' nature of some of my decisions I suppose this isn't really the end of the world. However, more seriously, repetition of this swinging pendulum approach to life serves to make me feel like a giant failure in my very own eyes which, when repeated too many times, can become really detrimental to self-esteem and self-belief. And anyway, why am I so hard on myself in the first place? I have such high standards for myself; I want to look, act, and feel a certain way. I can't allow myself the 'everything in moderation' rule because that wouldn't be dramatic or life-changing enough, and you never know, I might even stick to a plan that wasn't extreme and completely unrealistic. How boring that would be.

It's human nature to want to progress, move forward in life and change for the better. Without this forward momentum we become stuck and depressed. However, life doesn't move forward at speed all the time (in my experience it can move backwards quite quickly as an alternative!) so having self-made goals to aim towards helps provide us with framework and meaning. The sense of reward from self-improvement can be really dramatic. Also, as a self-confessed lover of naughty foods, late night dancing and alcohol based beverages, I would probably be in physical and mental disarray if it wasn't for the other side of my personality - the lover of yoga and body balance, salad and organic vegetables, juicing and early nights. Perhaps this all or nothing pendulum is my own personal way of achieving moderation. After all, who really wants to eat a whole packet of chocolate biscuits and not feel guilty about it, wouldn't that just take away all the fun?!

Perhaps the other side to all of this is more basic - perhaps it is to do with the need for control over our lives, and putting in place rules and regulations to stick to can help make life seem less daunting. Whether it is a food, exercise or work / professional based goal, having a self-imposed structure to adhere to can feel calming and soothing in a whole sea of the unknown. In adult life we are all living within a framework of invisible rules. We know that we are supposed to be masters of our own destiny, free to do what we want when we want, and able to change our mind when we like in search of a better life, but aside from day dreaming or winning the lottery not many of us with a mortgage / children / job / normal existence are really free to behave in free-form way. I wonder if swinging wildly around in the all or nothing based approach to life is my own way of rebelling against the rules - I don't want to break the law, or get into trouble so how else can I break them? So I just make some up for myself and then bask in the delight of throwing it all up in the air a week later - to hell with it, I'm having a piece of cake because I want to and I can do what I like. So there! Feeling better now? Um, not really. Still, it's all a way of controlling my own life experience, be it making or breaking the framework that I live within.

The reality is that repeatedly setting a goal and not achieving it isn't a good thing. It holds us back and makes us doubt ourselves. It's confusing too - because for some reason, it is hard to act consistently in our own best interests, to better ourselves and commit to things that will serve to improve our life experience. Behaving erratically makes it even harder. And the more erratic we are the less likely it becomes that we will ever change our ways - all or nothing can become a habit all of its very own; it can help us to swing forwards and then take us right back to where we were when we started, quick as you like. It can keep us rooted firmly to the spot. I think I will start to think about this next time I tell myself I'm 'not allowed to eat wheat, dairy or sugar for a month.' I think I need to ask myself 'Is this a goal worth setting and am I likely to rise to the challenge or am I setting myself up for another fall?' After all, one piece of cake isn't a problem but a whole gateau is a bad idea - so maybe it is all about moderation after all, or at least a moderation of approach, that allows us room for small setbacks and stops that pendulum from swinging so wildly. Good luck with that! I, for one, am going to need it.

''Part of abandoning the all-or-nothing mentality is allowing yourself room for setbacks. We are bound to have lapses on the road to health and wellness, but it is critical that we learn how to handle small failures positively so that we can minimize their long-term destructive effects. One setback is one setback...it is not the end of the world, nor is it the end of your journey toward a better you.'' Julian Michaels