It’s not just sink or swim
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who teaches you mindfulness and thoughtful self-reflection so you can stop second-guessing yourself, make decisions confidently and live the life you’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
Here is something I know about myself, about my friends, about my coaching clients, and about pretty smart people in generally: We seem to be burdened with the certainty of seeing only two solutions or paths forward in any given situation: a “negative” one, or outcome, or a “positive” one or outcome.
- Fail, or succeed.
- Stay, or go.
- Win, or lose.
- Quit a career, or stay forever.
- Perfection, or failure.
- Shoulds, or shouldn’ts
- Sink, or swim
Generally this sort of thinking can be referred to as the cognitive distortion of black or white thinking or all or nothing thinking. It’s very common I find, especially amongst successful perfectionists, who were often taught there is only one way to achieve or move forward.
But where all or nothing thinking fails you is in situations of complexity, ambiguity, intricacy, confusion, possibilities. AKA, right now, AKA, also, life in general.
Black and white thinking serves us up to a certain point in our lives. “If I get a good grade, then I go to a good college. If I go to a good college, then I get a good job. If I get a good job, I can live in a nice place.”
Where its usefulness ends is somewhere around, oh… early 20s? If not before. But we reach for it continuously. I work with folks well into their 40s, 50s and beyond who look at any given situation they’re dealing with, and are only able to envision two outcomes: one that’s “good,” and one that’s “bad.” One where everything changes, one where nothing changes.
I was this person, too. “I can’t quit my job, I’ll be broke otherwise!” “I can’t start a newsletter, nobody will read it!” “I can’t move away from this living situation, I have no idea where to go!” “I can do this, or I can’t do this!”
If only at those times I could have seen all the in-between, third way possibilities:
- I could make a plan to stay at my job for 1–2 years, build up savings, and get my certifications on the side to eventually leave
- I could start a newsletter because it felt good to write regularly again, not because anybody would read it
- I could figure out a way to travel to the town I want to move to regularly, even consider house-sitting options there, and try it out before deciding to make the leap of moving
- I can do parts of this, and other parts are still intimidating me, but I will continue to work on them
You may recognize yourself in some of this thinking pattern, and understand that you want to cultivate a more resilient and flexible mind, that can brainstorm myriad outcomes, see several possibilities, and generally start to see all of the colors of a rainbow in your life, not just the black and the white.
But where to start?
Here are a few tricks I use for myself:
- Catch my language. Replace absolutes like always, never, can’ts with sometimes, at times, coulds
- Force myself to write down 10 possible outcomes for any situation I am confronted with that feels starkly either/or to me
- Learn to engage with my perfectionism by trying small new activities I know I am not “good” at (singing, dancing and drawing are those for me)
In short, try floating. Try breaststroking. Try finding a liferaft. Try bobbing in the water. Try doing somersaults in the pool. Understand there isn’t just sink, or swim. There’s an entire world in between those two outcomes — and it’s in that space that a life is truly lived.