All-or-nothing, and the middle way

Our mental health may depend on being flexible like water, rather than remaining brittle like ice.  Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Maturity is the ability to realise a balance between two extremes.


When we are young, there are many activities to learn.  When we first learn an activity, we lurch first to one side, then to the other.  Think of riding a bike.  When you first try, you might lean to the left, and ride into a bush.  The second time, you correct to the right, but overcorrect and fall over to your right.  Eventually, through trial, error and experience, you learn to constantly correct between left and right.  Your micro-corrections get smaller and smaller, until you make riding a bike look effortless.


Mood management is similar.  When we are young, there are many moods to learn.  When we first learn a mental state, we lurch to its extreme.  Think of getting upset.  In your early years, you simply burst into tears, and became incapable of functioning until you were rescued.  Perhaps, in your teenage years, you learned to correct, and mask your emotions so that you were protected from looking weak.  This overcorrection, however, made you look unemotional, and everyone around you stopped helping, because they thought you were fine.

In adulthood, perhaps you have learned to constantly correct your behaviour between uncontrolled crying, and over-controlled unemotionality, so that you can make living look relatively effortless, whilst still able to signal your feelings when you need to share or receive help.


In every dilemma we face, and every action we perform, we negotiate between two extremes.  Standing up is the art of negotiating between the extremes of falling down and flying.  Music negotiates the balance between loudness and silence, discord and harmony.  Conversation balances between honesty and politeness.  And so on.

When we first think or do anything, we don’t know any better, and so we lurch to the extremes.  As we learn, we realise that all things exist on a moderated scale.  The art, if we wish to learn it, is to become skilful at micro-adjustments between the extremes.  This helps us to master our emotions and our actions.


When I was training as a psychologist, and later as a counsellor, I became fascinated by how clients learned to negotiate between two extremes, and how developing this skill seemed to help them to overcome many problems – not just the one they came to me with.

It was as though many problems could be resolved once the client came to an understanding that it was not a case of all or nothing, but more a case of managing things as they go.


To use a physical analogy, it seems to me that humans suffer when they are like ice, and suffer less when they are like water.  When you hit ice with a hammer, it shatters.  This is because its physical constitution cannot flex to cope with the stress of the encounter.  The response is explosive, because the ice only knows how to keep itself together in one way.  If that way is not possible, it flies apart.  You may recognise this as one kind of response of a person to overwhelm.  It is what happens to us when we’ve ‘had it up to here’, and explode.

To continue the analogy, when you hit water with a hammer, it flows around it.  (Actually, the wielder of the hammer is likely to fall in and get rather wet, due to the lack of resistance!)  This is because the water is able to flow around the shape of anything that assaults it.  You may recognise this as another kind of response to overwhelm.  It is what we do when we adapt in a fluid manner to what is happening around us.  We don’t become brittle and fly apart in a big mess.  We flow around the obstacle, and come back together.


You are not like a simple object.  The ice only has one choice as to how it responds.  The water, the same.  As a human, however, you are built differently.  You have a weird and wonderful system involving a brain, and you can choose your responses in ways physical objects can’t.

From the moment you were conceived, your mind and body began adapting to your environment.  First, you had an instinctive reaction.  Then, perhaps, you learned to mask it with the opposite reaction.  Eventually, if you are lucky, you learned to balance your life with constant micro-adjustments to what is around you.  This makes you more subtle, flexible and wise.


Putting this all together, what is the application to counselling and self-development?

Suffering results from our inner structures not coping with what is happening to us. Thus, we experience life as a violence done to us, something painful and impossible to come to terms with.

This may be true.  Life may have thrown us a curveball, and the assault may be so extreme as to destroy us.  I don’t want to minimise the way suffering can be sometimes.  In this case, the all-or-nothing view may be correct.

But I’m an optimist, and I’m interested in how we manage the suffering that is within our control.

I have watched many clients come to terms with life, and find happier ways of relating to it.  And, almost without exception, they have replaced all-or-nothing views with more moderated, accepting views, which gave them time and space to play.  Using the physical analogy, they have chosen to behave more like water than ice.


Think of a problem you face, and reflect on why it is causing you suffering.  Try to find a way in which you are being like ice, refusing to budge to allow flow to happen.  Perhaps someone else has a different perspective to you, and you find it impossible to shift your mind to see how theirs is working.  Perhaps your diary seems to be assaulting you with overactivity, and you are finding it hard to flow outside its confines.

Within this problem, try to find two extremes you are undecided between.  Are you thinking it’s a case of your way or their way?  Are you thinking it’s a case of control or be controlled?  Do or not do? Are you thinking you have to decide if someone is a friend or an enemy?  Is it really that all-or-nothing?  Now spend some time quietly analysing whether, in fact, your mind can flow between the two extremes, and be fluid.  Try to flow like water around your life, accepting what comes.

You may find that your mind starts to think of ideas and perspectives that don’t require extreme action.  You may find that your emotions quieten, and become more subtle.  You may find yourself better able to negotiate with subtlety.  You may find yourself a little happier.



We grow when we get better at managing the balance between extremes of thought and emotion.  Just like riding a bike when we are young, as adults we learn to moderate our responses, but also to stay in touch with our feelings.

In every situation, there are extremes to be negotiated, and we can become more skilful at discerning the micro-adjustments necessary to negotiate between them.  Our mental health depends upon being flexible like water, rather than remaining brittle like ice.

It takes time and thought, but we can avoid suffering by moving away from an all-or-nothing approach to life, and towards more accepting, flexible views.  If you analyse a problem with the fluidity of water, you may find yourself becoming quieter, more subtle, better able to negotiate, and generally happier.