As a newly minted MBA graduate, I launched my career on Madison Avenue which, at the time, was the world headquarters of the advertising industry. It was a heady time and I was determined to set the world on fire with my passion, insights, and tenacity. I grabbed my brand-new briefcase and stylish suits and delved into conducting consumer focus groups, filming television commercials, and completing store checks. Everything was new and I soaked it all up, especially workplace rituals and culture.
My first astonishing realization occurred during our caffeine-infused morning meetings. As an account manager, my role was to create and refine brand strategy, liaison with clients, and work closely with creative teams to keep projects and productions on track. As our team streamed into the conference room for the morning meetings, I noticed that everyone was carrying one or two 10- or 12-ounce cups of coffee. Sometimes people even poured three cups of java down their throats before the meeting was over. The delightful aroma of coffee infused the meeting. Wanting to be seen as the mature grown-up that I was, I too started bringing a coffee to the morning huddle.
Until, one day, I abruptly stopped.
Throughout the workday, people gushed about coffee as if it was a drug. They grumbled if they didn’t get enough and took a dash out of the office for an afternoon fix to down yet another cup of Joe. Seeing my coworkers scrambling for coffee made me change my mind about wanting to drink it myself. Today, having lived a bit more of life, I realize that my naivete combined with a shot of sanctimonious judgment is what literally turned my stomach. So, instead of deciding to enjoy my coffee in moderation, I went full throttle and became the coffee equivalent of a tee-toataler! Just like the temperance activists who were entirely opposed to alcohol, I went cold-turkey with a vengeance. For the next 30 years, organic herbal mint tea was my beverage of choice. In fact, I always carried several teabags in my purse or backpack, stashed in a small Ziploc bag, in case there was occasion to have a coffee break at work or in a social situation.
However, once again, my world suddenly shifted.
When my younger son was in high school, he started shadowing a doctor in a local hospital during school breaks and over summer vacations. His work day started at the hospital at 6 a.m., so he started drinking coffee. Around the same time, coffee culture exploded with cappuccino bars and extensive menu options proliferating. When we celebrated special family occasions, my mom or son ordered after-dinner cappuccinos. I commented how the coffee smelled so delicious and my mother pushed her cup closer to me, saying, “Go ahead, have a sip!” So, I did. You don’t have to read the tea leaves to know where this is going. After luxuriating in that frothy foam (always better with a biscotti), I quietly and slowly returned to enjoy this simple pleasure rather than standing on a soapbox for a cause that no one ever cared about in the first place.
It taught me an important life lesson. When I adamantly declared I would forgo coffee forever, I was experiencing a cognitive distortion called “all-or-nothing thinking.” The American Psychological Association defines a cognitive distortion as a “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief.” All-or-nothing thinking is a specific type of cognitive distortion “thinking trap” which causes us to perceive a situation, action, person, or cup of coffee as either right or wrong, good or bad, and black or white. It causes us to create blanket statements about the world being binary—having stagnant, set, unchangeable ways of existing that leaves no room for exploration, moderation, or growth. This limiting belief system prevents us from engaging with life in an open, responsive, thoughtful way.
Fortunately, when my mom offered me a sip of her coffee and I said yes, it challenged my all-or-nothing thinking and enabled me to see beyond my holier-than-thou, anti-coffee phase. In this way, I was able to appreciate the concept of duality: Understanding that drinking too much coffee isn’t good for me, while also knowing that I can absolutely enjoy a delicious, steaming cup of Joe when inspired.
The first step to overcoming a thinking trap is awareness. I invite you to consider what areas of your life you may be seeing through the prism of all-or-nothing thinking, and how this judgment might be preventing you from enjoying some really wonderful experiences.
I’m sending you strength and love.
Soaringwords is the power to heal.