• We all want to achieve our goals, but driving yourself to achieve at any cost may harm your mental health and your relationships

  • Psychologist and author Mike McKinney outlines the downfalls of the all-or-nothing personality

  • If you need breathing space and self-compassion, therapy might be a good place to start – find your therapist here

Sometimes in life, things are not clear cut and seemingly good things may not always be beneficial. You earn more money but pay more tax, you love desserts but gain weight. So it can be with effort and focus. The "All or Nothing" (A/N) approach to life involves being determined, focused and persistent and can bring about positive outcomes and success. However, achievement can also come at a cost: personally, socially, within the family and also career-wise.

Why do some people drive themselves so hard?

The all-or-nothing individual is someone who has many positive attributes and being busy plus achieving is central to this person's life. When a challenge is encountered, such people tend to push themselves harder and harder to meet their goal(s). Many A/N people share a family background which prioritised, valued and/or expected high performance. This may have included the parents modelling busy and focused behaviours. Such preferences may have seen certain ways of behaving e.g. high effort, being reinforced within the home. This is relevant, as A/N individuals tend to repeatedly and unquestioningly apply the early messages about effort and what is required to be "good" (or should that be perfect?) at something.

Sitting behind the A/N person’s tendency to push themselves are things called schemas. They are beliefs / ways of viewing the world that have been laid down (from a young age) and reinforced over years – a sort of pre-google guidance system. Key schemas for A/N people are around achieving, completing tasks, having a strong work ethic and perfection.

The impact pushing so hard

Central to the A/N approach to life is passion and a desire to excel. However, for some individuals, achievement becomes the dominant (if not sole) focus. This emphasis and drive to succeed can lead to unintended personal costs and consequences. As part of this focus, A/N individuals can develop a dichotomous thinking process. Perhaps the most unhelpful aspect of which is seeing everything as either a pass or fail – with no meritable effort accepted! Such a style of thinking reinforces a “full on” attitude and makes it harder to implement a balanced approach to life. Because they have been so busy focusing on the latest project(s), A/N people run the risk of drifting away from family/friends and not engaging in previously enjoyed life activities.

Other costs can be recreational losses and career problems. Due to the constant demands and pressure, some people can become worn down and then burn out. This is a state of not having the same energy or enthusiasm and presents as a distancing (psychologically and physically) from the primary role. Other potential costs are in terms of depression or anxiety. Finally, pushing themselves consistently can lead to problems with health e.g. cardiac and blood pressure. However, the signs that such an imbalance is beginning may not be noticed (or heeded) until it is too late.

Perfectionistic traits are not evil or wrong. However, they can sometimes take on a life of their own and become unhelpful within the all-or-nothing approach to life. This is especially so if the quest for better performance is accompanied by harsh self-judgment. The problems come when people start to mesh with these unhelpful messages and they direct behaviour e.g. “…only losers quit”. This can bring about a fear of failure that drives individuals beyond their tolerance levels.

For these people, so much expectation and effort can be attached to achievement that their sense of self and personal worth becomes bound up in what they do and how they do it. Personal identity can then become measured solely in terms of a role and/or performance. This can leave the individual vulnerable (emotionally and psychologically) if things do not work out as expected i.e. delivering a perfect performance.

Know the real you and be kinder to yourself

The key message is not that having goals or succeeding is wrong. Rather, it is about realising that you risk losing yourself within the drive for perfection and achievement. It may therefore be helpful to learn to ‘dial up and dial down’ your levels of effort (imagine a dimmer switch influencing your behaviour), as appropriate to the situational demands. Adjusting your effort like this will potentially bring about more sustainable engagement that also helps maximise quality of life and outcomes.

Being successful does not need to undermine your physical or mental health and wellbeing. All things in moderation is a good maxim and this should apply to the goals and expectations you set yourself. Try to understand what is driving you at any point and check in to see if the goals you are setting are realistic and attainable.

Reconfiguring your sense of self around what is important to you as a person and accounting for your values can also help counter the negative aspects of this A/N approach. Realise there is more to you and your life’s story than achievement and competition. Look to reconfigure your identity based on fun and interest as much as success. It may be helpful to reacquaint yourself with what you previously enjoyed, learn again to be spontaneous, reconnect with values and let them guide you. It may also be ok to ask if those ways of doing things you learned so long ago are as helpful and useful now.

Further reading

The downsides of perfectionism

Why do we like being scared?

How do I know if I'm introvert or extrovert?

What does being authentic really mean?

Can you be a confident introvert?

Are extroverts more likely to get bored?

Mike McKinney is the author of All or Nothing