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ALL

or Nothing

 


Bringing balance to the

achievement-oriented

personality

MIKE McKINNEY

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To one of the best psychologists I have ever worked with
and who also happens to be my wife. Thanks for all the
unquestioning support with this project. Also, much
appreciation and admiration to my two teenage sons for their
discussions around the dinner table. Your understanding of
human nature is way beyond your years.

Contents

Introduction

1. How do I know if I am ‘all or nothing’?

2. Where (and why) did this begin?

3. What keeps this all going?

4. Avoiding things and then… the ‘nothing’

5. The Harsh Internal Critic: an unhelpful passenger

6. Striving for perfection, or needing to be perfect?

7. Health and wellbeing

8. New perspectives, achievement and the ‘me’

9. The partner’s journey

References

Index

Introduction

There are many arenas where dedication and focus are central to distinguishing oneself, of which the corporate world, competitive sport and the performing arts are prime examples.

Undoubtedly a degree of single-mindedness comes in handy in these and other environments, and will help you become competitive and therefore, hopefully, successful. But what if that same drive and determination excludes so much more of life? What if you have to sacrifice your relationships or your wellbeing in pursuit of your career goals?

All or Nothing is for people who are goal-directed (some may say in the extreme) and use all their focus and energy to complete tasks, despite any unintended personal costs and consequences. However, this book does not assume that trying hard and having goals is wrong. There is no doubt that pushing oneself is a prerequisite for attaining high levels in the competitive business world. This is readily acknowledged by the author and there is no vested interest here to promote the ‘everyone’s a winner’ thesis. Nor am I trying to suggest that people should not chase their dreams or continue to aim high. All or Nothing will help you make positive choices — choices based on information and understanding rather than habitual responses. It is about (and for) individuals who have a strong drive to achieve and regularly push themselves, perhaps beyond their tolerance levels. It is this determination that is at once the greatest strength of such people, yet also potentially their greatest vulnerability.

This book provides real-world understanding of the ‘all or nothing’, or A/N, personality-style that can be encountered in all areas of life. This approach to life is an expression of a series of personality characteristics common to many high achievers but also people who push themselves to meet their goals in a wide range of domains and careers. This way of interacting with the world usually encompasses a high degree of determination, persistence and focus on goals. Additionally, this can be to the exclusion of everything else, which is a key aspect of the ‘all or nothing’ way of life. Such an approach to life can be positive and can reinforce the idea that the more you put into a task, the sooner you get the rewards from your efforts. However, a little like a hamster on its wheel, once onto this way of behaving, an A/N individual can find it hard to stop.

The A/N personality-style is particularly prevalent within the business world.

CASE STUDY

Matthew (not his real name) was the CEO of a large institution. For many years he had provided direction, support and leadership to the organization as a whole and also to the staff who worked for him. He approached the role with an attention to detail that was second to none and he prioritized the needs of the organization above all else. However, alongside this was a strong perfectionistic drive. This meant that things did not get signed off or leave the building until they were first rate and entirely completed! Matthew came to me as he had experienced some significant challenges with his mood, to the point that he ended up resigning from his position. This man of intellect and significant experience was at a loss to understand (let alone explain) how he had come to this point — was he not the one who fixed things for others and successfully juggled a multitude of issues and events?

It wasn’t until we began exploring some of the build-up to this situation, along with the day-to-day pressures of his role, that Matthew came to see that he had experienced what the business world might call burn-out. This very capable, thoughtful and driven individual had forgotten to take care of himself while putting out corporate fires left, right and centre. It soon became clear that a lot had been sacrificed outside the work environment. In essence, and without realizing it, this dedicated man had become so focused on his role that he had pushed himself physically and mentally beyond his limits. Matthew’s internal drivers, dedication to the job and readiness to meet all challenges had taken a toll that was both professional and personal. He had paid a high price but also came to realize that, with a little help, all was not lost and that he could reconfigure his sense of self, rebuild aspects of important relationships plus explore ways to return to employment — in a manner that was perhaps more sustainable. After Matthew left his role, a review was conducted to ensure that the high levels of performance could be maintained within the organization; he was subsequently replaced with 2.5 people!

The drive to produce this book came from my practice as a clinical psychologist. One of the things psychologists are taught is to look for patterns, reflect upon how they might have come about and then identify whether they are helpful to the individual or not. In my career of over twenty years, I have worked with people from a wide range of backgrounds and I have seen many behaviours — some helpful and some downright destructive. I have been struck, though, by clients who (as either their presenting problem or one attached to their presenting problem) have demonstrated a remarkably consistent pattern of A/N behaviours. These behaviours have, on the one hand, helped the person achieve in their chosen direction in life but also may have (paradoxically) restricted or even prevented them from achieving to their full potential. Often, it was not until ‘too late’ that the person realized such a focused approach may have cost them the very thing/s they were striving towards: their career, appropriate recognition and, sometimes, their family life.

NOT A DIFFERENT SPECIES

People exhibiting A/N personality traits come from both genders and are of all ages, backgrounds and roles in life. Although A/N individuals often get labelled as such by peers and family members, it is important to realize they do not have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). This is a psychiatric diagnosis, and it seems to be the strong drive to complete tasks/goals that leads other people to label A/N individuals as obsessive. Rather than this essentially medical definition, I prefer to use the term ‘personality-style’, which captures the fact the A/N behaviours are an integral part of the person and are expressed within their usual world events. I do not suggest A/N people are riddled with pathological behaviours, nor are they held captive by a dysfunctional personality. However, such people are indeed driven and this can take them to a place where they sometimes lose perspective and balance in their pursuit of attainment, completion and perfection.

A/N people are not just at the higher levels of business, sport and artistic fields. They can also be weekend warriors who tirelessly strive and become totally immersed in their training for events such as triathlons and marathons. The common theme is passion, underscored by a strong focus and desire to excel or transcend. However, this can also mean a single-mindedness regarding the goal, which can result in other (previously important) tasks and roles struggling to find time within the busy schedule.

The book will outline how an A/N personality-style and approach presents itself and the problems that can potentially result — case studies will be used to shed further light on how aspects of this personality-style affect a person’s life. This will help you identify if, and to what extent, you experience, live with and exhibit the relevant traits. While the book will present some theoretical approaches from the world of psychology, these are presented in a manner that allows them to be easily digested and, more importantly, related to. Of course, just describing an issue is of little value in itself; on its own, awareness is simply a recipe for frustration. Therefore, throughout the book, suggestions on things to be aware of will be complemented by actions you can take to bring about some level of change.

A key aim is to help you understand the costs of certain behaviours, understand what you are doing, how (and possibly why) this came about and then take yourself to the point where you feel empowered to do something about it … if you choose. The book does not advocate the ‘stopping’ of all behaviours associated with an A/N approach to life; to do this would simply be to follow the root issue associated with this condition — either ‘I do it all’ or ‘I stop it all’. There is much that is positive within the approach of being focused, hard-working and keen to excel. The difficulty comes when one direction is pursued to the exclusion of all others. Learning to ‘dial in and dial out’ your levels of effort, as appropriate to the situational demands, will potentially bring about more sustainable engagement that helps maximize quality of life and potential. Think of a dimmer attached to a light switch. Previously, incandescent light was brought about by turning a switch on and then ended by turning the switch off. There was power coming to the bulb or there wasn’t; there was light in the room or there wasn’t. However, a dimmer can now be attached to the switch. This gives you the ability to use the power in a manner that provides light in proportion to your needs at a given time. So if you want to read a novel in the evening, you might turn the dimmer switch up for more light. Conversely, if you want to chill out with a nice glass of sauvignon blanc while listening to some soothing jazz, you have the choice of lowering the light level via the dimmer. Neither of these lighting levels is ‘correct’, nor is one ‘wrong’. Rather, by having a mechanism to adjust the light, a more suitable atmosphere can be obtained for the desired activity. Perhaps the same can be achieved with our level of engagement on tasks within our work environment and life in general?

WHY SHOULD YOU READ THIS BOOK?

I hope that by the time you get to the end of this book, you will see that you can still achieve and extend yourself without sacrificing your personal and family life or previously enjoyed activities. Being successful does not need to undermine your physical or mental health and wellbeing. But if it is costing this, then after reading this book you will hopefully be in a better, more informed position to make choices that are right for you while ensuring that your behaviours are in alignment with your values and goals. It would be great if I can help you become more flexible in your approach to your career and life in general.

Your ability to maintain this change in approach will be supported by a range of tools and approaches explained throughout the book, based on psychological theory, practice and principles. There is no need to completely change who you are. Rather, it is about learning to reconfigure your sense of self, beginning to tolerate uncertainty and potentially developing a more meaningful and multi-faceted life — while still achieving. If you have become tired from pushing yourself relentlessly, if you are sick of psychologically beating yourself up, if you have come to see that a large paycheque is not as fulfilling as once hoped (how many Lamborghinis can you fit in a garage anyway?), this book may just be for you. It may even offer you a life-changing opportunity. Feel free to be sceptical but do try to be open and honest with yourself. No one is going to judge you if you say to yourself, ‘Yep, that’s me all right.’ That is the beauty of reading a book: it happens inside your head, it is a private and personal moment that can offer the chance for reflection based on a new insight or perspective.

So, take a risk and read on.

1

How do I know if I am
‘all or nothing’?

This chapter provides an outline of some key aspects and attributes of a less-than-balanced approach to life. You might identify with some or most of the descriptions as you read this chapter. Either will be correct, as this is not about providing a ‘diagnosis’ of A/N behaviour. Rather, it is about helping you become more aware of personal characteristics that help you to achieve but, at other times, work against you.

Undoubtedly there are many people in the business world who demonstrate the A/N personality-style. An example is Bernie Ecclestone, the mastermind behind Formula 1 motor racing. This focused businessman runs an incredibly successful, worldwide empire. This 84-year-old reportedly has an insatiable appetite for work, an energy level that seems other-worldly and a perfectionistic streak that is both powerful and directed. He seems to live, breathe and ‘do’ his business all day and every day — but does this come at the exclusion of other aspects of his life? In 2013 he conducted an interview (subsequently published in The Times) in his chauffeur-driven car on the way to a family christening. During the interview, Mr Ecclestone told the reporter: ‘If I didn’t get up in the morning knowing I have a few problems to solve, I wouldn’t get up.’ On another occasion, he replied to a question on the quality of his life and what made him happy by saying, ‘I’m not sure what happiness is. I have experienced satisfaction when I have planned something and it has come off.’ Mr Ecclestone has had some challenges in his relationships over time and acknowledged that his most recent wife left him because ‘… I can’t take time off’. This is a man who essentially created the hugely successful spectacle that Formula 1 is today. He is reportedly worth vast sums of money and controls all aspects of the empire basically by himself. He is by any measure a hugely successful individual — who (surprise, surprise) returned to work almost immediately after having a triple coronary bypass. From an external perspective, it would seem that he embodies and lives the A/N approach to life that this book is about.

IS IT ME, THOUGH?

An A/N individual has many positive attributes, not the least of which is the ability to focus on a task and see it through to completion. This has many reinforcing aspects in that such people are praised for their achievements and also are self-reinforced for their efforts. The A/N individual tends to prioritize the immediate, positive outcomes such as completion, which then become both a motivator and a reinforcer. To this end, the person is willing to trade off other, potentially competing demands and activities in order to meet the self-generated goal. Being busy is a central theme of an A/N person’s life and this busyness is always in service of a particular goal e.g. short-term projects or longer-term career strategies. Although the person might be given tasks to do by an employer or manager, an important element is their internal drive. This is a motivational force that will help block out distractions and competing demands. Such an ability to filter out distractions and ‘unnecessary’ events allows the focus to be complete and sets the scene for undisturbed application of effort.

In this case, there appears to be but one way to move forward and that invariably involves pushing oneself. While this is useful for achieving and completing, it can come at a cost. The individual can overlook outcomes that are not necessarily obvious but may be building up. Such costs can be health related, socially oriented, familial or recreational. This totality of focus often means these ‘other’ issues or tasks are downgraded in importance — not purposely, it must be said, but because they don’t fit the current brief and therefore are simply not registered. Over time, this approach can become a self-perpetuating system that limits and narrows awareness, which further reduces the potential for flexibility. Thus, the concept of balance in life can be lost, or at least not thought about. Time away from the current goal or activity is seen as a problem and life can eventually hit a tipping point whereby other interests, obligations and relationships start to take a back seat. Once fully engaged in a task, strong aspects of the personality (such as a sense of responsibility and commitment) start to kick in and this makes it increasingly hard to shift from the main focus. Part of why this is difficult is that task completion can be intimately intertwined with the need to do a perfect job. Ceasing a task partway through seems to equate with a sense of failure and this fear of failure can be the driver of much of the behaviour that has become ‘all or nothing’.

Once commenced, a goal or commitment can come to dominate the thinking, perspective and options identified by an A/N individual. This is where the difficulties with being flexible come in. The A/N person finds it hard to hold in their head that balance might be possible, whereby more than one option can be held, nurtured and worked towards at the same time. What tends to stand out is the competing nature of two or more activities and the potential that this will mean less time for the key project and, therefore, quality will surely suffer. Struggling with flexibility, the person locks themself down to the main job and shuts out other distractions. The result is a dedicated, focused and full-on effort to complete the goal, whether it be immediate, short-term or long-term. The perfectionistic part of the personality then starts to kick in, which raises the threat of poor performance and potential embarrassment associated with that dreaded word: failure. It is important to understand these threats are not necessarily clearly understood or identified as such by the person; indeed, they might be experienced more as a ‘feeling’. This can be something that is hard for the person to describe, yet it brings about a sense of unease. The person is therefore motivated to avoid this discomfort and the perceived negative consequences e.g. non-completion of the goal. This results in further effort and an even greater narrowing of focus, which essentially shuts out the rest of the world. However, this can become a trap. The drive to stave off the feelings of failure becomes stronger and the A/N person will do just about anything to avoid either poor performance or judgment by others. This inevitably results in more effort and/or longer hours focused on the job at hand.

There is often a strong inner critic which is hard to escape as the voice is part of the self, is confident with its comments and tends to operate on a no-holds-barred approach to passing judgment on how you are performing. The aim is to show where the problem is, who the author of this disaster is — you — and to bully you into doing more, therefore hopefully meeting the goals originally set or agreed to. It doesn’t matter that these goals may have been unrealistic in terms of timeframes or extent. A part of the fear for an A/N individual is that they will be judged by significant others (e.g. their boss, coach or mentor) and be deemed to be operating poorly or not up to the required standard. One of the outcomes of this concern is a reduction in the ability to fairly and realistically monitor their own performance. As a result, A/N people can question their true ability and can also start to consider that they are not up to standard.

CASE STUDY

Jason is a senior-level financial executive responsible for several departments and decisions relating to large sums of money. He has been successfully employed by his company for a number of years and rose to this senior position due to his performance and ability. However, behind this public persona is a man who experiences self-doubt regarding his skill-set and ability to sustain performance levels. When he sought some therapeutic input, Jason described to me classic symptoms of burn-out such as loss of interest in the role, reduced sense of engagement with the company and colleagues plus struggling to energize himself as he previously had.

It soon became clear that Jason was a hard-working perfectionist with a powerful drive to complete his tasks on time and to a very high standard. He prioritized the work, plus the many responsibilities that accompanied this, above all other aspects of his life. However, Jason was becoming increasingly anxious that he would not be able to live up to his own expectations or those of others at work. His response to this was to work harder and longer, but this only drained his personal resources further and the anxiety continued to increase — as did his self-doubt — in a vicious cycle. He became overwhelmed and his worst fear (not performing) was becoming a reality.

Jason ended up taking extended sick leave due to the high anxiety and a lowering mood.

SOUNDS FAMILIAR, BUT IS IT REALLY AN ISSUE?

Unfortunately, this sometimes fragile sense of self can be challenged further by the situation that A/N people such as Jason find themselves in. The trap tightens more at this point because the internal clash starts to present itself more clearly. How do you relate to this talented and achieving image of your self while being concerned that it might all be an illusion, one that is about to be torn apart at any time by the discovery of your incompetence? This is an important point, as it signals a shift from feeling in control to entering a zone characterized by self-doubt and a sense of being judged harshly. Unfortunately, emotions are powerful but somewhat irrational masters. The problem is that potential ‘failure’ strikes at the personal identity and you are faced with a sense of being unable to meet your usual high standards.

Unfortunately, at such times the internal critic can step up a gear and become more insistent. This can see the A/N person rely on the time-tested and automatic approach of pushing themselves even harder. If this well-rehearsed behaviour fails to bring about a different result (e.g. the task is not completed as expected) confidence can start to decrease. Because you have been so busy focusing on the goal or project, you can drift away from friends and not engage in general life activities as in the past. By throwing yourself into work so fully (with no consideration of balance in your life) there can be little to bolster you in challenging times. As an A/N individual, you may also become vulnerable to internal messages around poor performance.

Even though they often appear confident, A/N people can be acutely aware of, and vulnerable to, the expectations of others, such as those important to the project or task at hand, for example employers, departmental leaders or colleagues. An A/N person can therefore be prone to second guessing the intentions, beliefs and interpretations of people who have influence on their career. Such a situation can result in over-identification with responses from others and therefore perceptions of being judged. As already discussed, effort (cognitive and/or physical) might therefore be increased to try to deliver what is believed to be necessary. However, if the perception is incorrect, then much effort can be wasted and precious resources potentially further diminished.

Attempting to second-guess is not always helpful. The A/N person has lots of motivation to achieve but does not account for their own welfare (this doesn’t register on a radar which is attuned to the external expectations) so once again, family, friends, health and hobbies may be shunted to the rear. Part of what happens at this point is an engagement of the dichotomous thinking process that many A/N people use to help make sense of their world. This thinking identifies things as relevant or irrelevant, goal directed or frivolous, useful or a waste of space. Such a style of thinking keeps the person focused on the goal at hand and allows a speedy appraisal of ‘not-so-important’ activities as possibly being counterproductive.

A POWERFUL COMBINATION

The combination of high expectations and motivation is a powerful one and can see you persisting with tasks when others might have called a halt. This can be positive with regard to deadlines or the meeting of a performance goal. However, it can be unhelpful when self-monitoring is suspended in deference to the bigger goal. The only variables accounted for at such times are those directly related to the outcome of the project at hand. Perhaps not such an issue if the project is measured in hours or days but potentially problematic if it relates to an ongoing role or longer-term goal such as a career pathway.

An interesting twist is the challenge for some A/N people in saying no to requests related to the topic they are engaged in. They can find it hard to turn away requests for assistance or to take on extra work related to the current project. This is especially so if it comes from a perceived superior or colleagues also involved in the focal task. Why is this so hard? As the A/N person can be sensitive to potential criticism, they are therefore usually keen to avoid changes to their ranking. Although in reality there might not be a huge threat, the potential of such can be enough to make the person agree to the request even if they don’t have enough time to help out. Within the person a battle begins regarding possible failure (i.e. failure to be the same as others of a similar standing or to measure up to their own standards). The latter probably exerts the greatest influence over the difficulty to say no as there is a ‘Harsh Internal Critic’ lurking inside most A/N individuals who is ever ready to point out failings, either current or potential. Unfortunately, this can drive the person harder so as to avoid this self-denigration. It is important to realize that it is not just the words or harsh tone that are unsettling. Rather, it is the potential of being faced with the image of not being who you feel you should be that is so worrying.

CASE STUDY

Tessa had established herself as a professional ballet dancer with several international companies. However, this high-achieving woman was now attempting to come to terms with the long-term physical problems she had developed as a result of her intense physical lifestyle.

Tessa described being raised in a family that valued the arts, and her parents thought ballet would be an excellent ‘career choice’ for their daughter, even though she was only around five when she started dancing. Tessa apparently showed a natural aptitude for ballet and this was enhanced by the extra classes her parents paid for. This led to success in competitions and then scholarships and, ultimately, a place in a professional company.

Tessa’s parents were both perfectionists and expected high levels of commitment and success from their daughter from an early age. She recalls feeling much pressure to meet these standards but also noted that she was (increasingly) demanding much of herself. As the years went by, Tessa struggled with eating challenges (in order to maintain weight goals) plus a variety of injuries brought about from the gruelling training regimes that she endured. Tessa readily acknowledged that she supplemented the group training with her own after-hours practice, which impacted her ability to take time out and relax. Eventually, Tessa developed stress fractures in her lower leg. She was strongly encouraged by medical advisors to take time off to heal. However, this was unthinkable to a young woman who was dancing in a very competitive environment, who had extremely high expectations of herself and was following her passion.

Unfortunately, this passion and drive eventually cost Tessa the thing she loved the most — her dancing career — as the stress fractures went on to become full fractures of the lower leg.

THE COST OF THIS BEHAVIOUR

All-or-nothing behaviour affects people in all areas of society, not just high-achieving professionals. There are legions of amateur athletes around the globe who exhibit high levels of dedication and focus for their passion. Similarly, many people in their everyday family or social lives exhibit an intense level of focus and participation. For many of these people, so much can be invested in one issue/approach that their sense of self and personal worth becomes wrapped up in this way of viewing and responding to the world. They also have limited time to nurture aspects of themselves that previously were important. As a result, their interests, focus and efforts become channelled into a narrower stream of life and there can be a loss of balance.

One of the key aspects of the A/N personality-style is an automatic response to long-standing or core beliefs (often referred to as schemas) plus using well-rehearsed behaviours in an automatic manner. Difficulty with shifting to alternative perspectives or another way of approaching a task is often experienced. In this case a person can, for example, be so focused on getting into the office that they step into the same pothole on a daily basis then, instead of changing their walking route, repeatedly curse the local council for not doing their job properly. This dogged (or is that stubborn?) determination to get to the end of the task can result in the person repeatedly pushing beyond their physical and emotional tolerance level. However, if this is not sustainable or the goal is not achievable, they may feel compelled to walk away, an outcome seen as impossible to avoid by some A/N people — for surely, there is no point in continuing if the goal cannot be reached and the task cannot be done in the manner expected?

At this point, certain aspects of life can come to a grinding halt and the costs of the overly focused, goal-directed behaviour can come rushing in. These costs may have been quietly building up over time, a bit like a psychological mortgage that hasn’t been paid and the bank is now calling in the loan, with interest. For many such people, it is the decline in their physical health or the appearance of anxiety or depression that forces them to finally hop off this real-life merry-go-round of pushing themselves to achieve at ever increasing standards. This can hit with a thump, as the person tends not to have considered the delayed negative results, their focus lying elsewhere.