Do you have a romantic partner who has a tendency to view everything in extremes? Maybe your beloved will come home sharing that they just had the ‘BEST DAY EVER!’’ Your significant other may quickly idealize people and see others as being nothing short of perfect. Correspondingly, their emotions can quickly change (without warning) and they can feel that NOTHING is going right and EVERYONE (mainly you) are against them. British author E. L. James gave attention to the term ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ But for some of us, no shades of grey exist. Everything is lumped into “all good” and “all bad” categories.
Splitting (all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person's thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism used by many people. Jeff Larsen of the University of Tennessee has done a lot of work to demonstrate that it is healthy to feel mixed emotions. Larsen conducted a study that even illustrated that the ability to experience emotional ambivalence is often a function of maturity. For example, after watching the Little Mermaid marry her prince but say goodbye to her father, most 11-year-old girls report feeling mixed emotions, but no 6-year-olds do.
Are you curious why your loved one may see the world in such extremes? Psychologists believe that all-or-nothing thinking is often developed at a young age when a child has a hard time incorporating into consciousness seemingly contradictory aspects of the same person or thing, such as the behavior of a parent. Therefore, they unconsciously separate or “split” objects into two categories, seeing the “good” side of a person or thing as the part they find acceptable and the “bad” side of the person that they find painful or unacceptable. They actually “split” a single entity into two opposing realities, conceptualizing for example a parent who has both a gentle and a terrifying side as alternately “good parent,” or “bad parent” As a result, they will often alternate between idealizing and devaluing the same person.
If you are in a relationship with someone who engages in all-or-nothing thinking it can feel so confusing to see such dichotomies within one person. Their behavior can easily leave you feeling nervous and overly careful of everything you say and do in order to avoid being on their ‘bad’ side. It’s important to understand that all-or-nothing thinking isn’t something you caused or can cure for another, no matter how much you care for them. The only person we can work on in this lifetime is yourself. And while we can’t change people, we can certainly alter the way we react to them. Below please find 4 tips to help you cope with a partner who engages in all-or- nothing thinking. As always, I support you in being compassionate, aware and accepting of yourself and others.
Coping Tips: When Your Partner Engages In All-Or-Nothing Thinking
1. Set Boundaries: It is common for those who engage in All-Or-Nothing thinking to become reckless, impulsive and may say or do things that they will later regret. Regardless of the circumstances, it is never excusable to engage in violence, verbal or emotional abuse. Always set limits with a loved one who is engaging in All-Or-Nothing Thinking. If that line is ever crossed, explain why you are backing away and try to do so consistently and dispassionately. Setting boundaries promotes safety in the relationship.
2. Take Care of Yourself: Self-care is so important. If you love someone who engages in All-Or-Nothing Thinking, you can easily feel exhausted, fearful and burnt out. I recommend finding your own therapist to help you balance and understand your needs. Make sure you are getting enough sleep at night and maintain balance in your life. Maintain and nurture your healthy friendships, family relationships, social groups and professional activities. When you are taking care of your own needs, you will have greater clarity, energy and compassion.
3. Manage Your Reaction: We can’t control people, but we can manage how we respond to them. If your loved one engages in All-Or-Nothing Thinking try to remember that you are in the better position when you control your temper. Yelling or trying to convince your partner that they are wrong will only serve to make the situation even worse. Quite often agree to disagree. It is important to respect the rights for everyone to have their own point of view.
4. Remind Your Partner That You Care: Quite often people engage in All-Or-Nothing thinking because they are terrified of being rejected or abandoned. Going to extremes helps them predict and prepare for their worst fear of being rejected. Knowing that you care often helps reduce the splitting behavior. Failure to communicate your commitment and care to your partner only serves to fuel your loved one's rejection anxiety.
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Sending you peaceful thoughts and wishes for brighter days.