Happy New Year!
In the 2006 cinematic masterpiece, “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby,” the main character is a race car driver whose thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors all seem to flow out of a statement his father made to him when he was a young boy. “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” yells Reece Bobby as he squeals away from career day at Ricky’s school in his souped-up race car. The rest of the film hilariously unfolds around Ricky viewing and measuring everything in his life through this lens.
We laugh at the comedic impact this untrue phrase has on Ricky Bobby, but the underlying premise is actually quite sad. He is incredibly hard on himself, is crippled at the thought of failure, holds others to impossibly high standards, and uses his best friend and other people around him to ensure that he is indeed “first” in everything. This ends up wreaking havoc on his relationships as well as his physical and mental health.
I feel a little silly saying that there is profound truth explored in the legend of Ricky Bobby, but there is. The film shows the power of an untrue belief to shape the way a person perceives the world and therefore thinks, feels, and behaves.
One way psychology has come to describe these untrue beliefs is through the term “cognitive distortions.” The American Psychological Association defines cognitive distortions as “a faulty or inaccurate thought, perception, or belief.” In Ricky Bobby’s case, the cognitive distortion would be categorized as “dichotomous” or “all or nothing” thinking. We all do this at times and miss all of the possibilities between “perfect” and “the worst thing ever.”
Consider some ways that such absolute thinking can affect our lives and relationships:
- We can sabotage our relationships. If an historically loving, consistent, and faithful person in your life suddenly becomes, “the worst ever,” after a mistake or misunderstanding, you are probably being affected by dichotomous thinking.
- We can be very hard on ourselves. Have you ever thought, “I got a B, I am a failure!” or “The soup is too salty, I am a terrible cook!”? These are examples of all or nothing thinking.
- We can make drastic decisions about our entire career, church, school, or family as “terrible” or “ruined” when one aspect is not going well or is disappointing.
- We can sidetrack our goals and dreams when we abandon our efforts to eat healthy, exercise, or learn a new skill because we are not doing it perfectly.
All or nothing thinking can often be spotted as occurring alongside phrases like:
- “It has to be perfect.”
- “I should have gotten100%.”
- “You always ignore my feelings.”
- “He never notices how hard I work.”
- “The whole day is ruined.”
- “The airline lost my bag, so the trip was a disaster.”
All or nothing thinking is the enemy to a hallmark quality of good emotional and relational health – psychological flexibility. It is easy to see the rigidity of all or nothing thinking because it allows no other options from which to assess a situation and determine your response except, “it is perfect, or it is ruined.” Psychological flexibility allows us to be present in the here and now, take a realistic assessment of the circumstance, and determine our actions based on our values and not on our emotions.
We all get caught up in cognitive distortions like all or nothing thinking from time to time, so how do we keep these untrue thoughts from running the show? Here are a few suggestions:
- Keep on the lookout for your use of words like always, never, should, ought, perfect, ruined, the best, the worst. An awareness of where you use these terms can help you become an observer of your areas of all or nothing thinking.
- Hang out in the here and now. Often past experiences or future worries invade our day to day experiences and cloud our perceptions of what is happening in the present. Taking a few deep breaths and using your 5 senses to notice what is happening right now can help your nervous system perceive things as they really are, which is rarely all good or all bad.
- Practice the truth about yourself, God, and others. By “rehearsing” what is true when we are not distressed we can strengthen those accurate thoughts. For example, in relationships, we can rehearse the truth that “I am not 100% right and you are not 100% wrong.” Or we can rehearse the truth that “I don’t have to be perfect to be loveable.” Thinking about the nuanced truth can strengthen neural pathways and help us stay out of cognitive distortions when distress comes.
- Spend time in “shades of gray.” Keep an image of a grayscale in your mind (or print one out and keep it in your pocket!) When you encounter distressing situations, consider what shade of gray between white (all good and shiny) or black (all dark and dismal) the situation really is. You will be surprised at what “big” emotional reactions we can have to things that are pretty light gray if we think about it!
At the end of the movie, poor Ricky Bobby confronts his dad with the rule he has lived by his whole life, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” His father is incredulous that Ricky based his life on such a lie! “That doesn’t make any sense at all,” he says, “you can be second, third, fourth… you can even be fifth.”
Ricky says, “What? I’ve lived my whole life by that!”
All or nothing thinking has the potential to impact every aspect of our lives. If you have deeply ingrained dichotomous thoughts that seem to run the show of your life, seek out a counselor who can help you untangle those ways of thinking. What is the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” thought in your life? Take some time to notice it and how it affects your emotions and behaviors. With some mindful attention we can help prevent those thoughts from driving our lives!