Have you felt yourself stuck in a cycle of black and white thinking when it comes to food or your body? The feelings and emotions that come up around food and weight can be uncomfortable to say the least. As a society, we have been conditioned to think about body size and nutrition as a one-size-fits-all ideal and that there is a right way and wrong way to be in regards to how we look and what we eat. These messages we are given day in and day out result in feelings of guilt and shame when we fail to live up to the impossible standards of diet culture and the resulting expectations we have of ourselves because of them. The feeling of guilt and shame often come along with what we call black and white thinking.
what is black and white thinking
Black and white thinking, otherwise known as all-or-nothing thinking, is a cognitive behavior that labels particular actions/behaviors as “all good” or “all bad” with nothing in between. Splitting, as it is referred to in psychology, is defined as “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.” (1)
Adopting black and white thinking is a common defense mechanism, especially for those suffering from eating disorders. We sometimes adopt it to help cope with feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame when complex situations contain a great deal of nuance, which can be intimidating to decipher. For example, every food item from every food group contains nutrients that work to keep you alive and functioning, yet oftentimes foods are so easily labeled as “good” or “bad.”
How can black and white thinking impact dieting/disordered eating/eating disorders?
Black and White thinking is a defense mechanism to help the mind cope. But by adopting this way of thinking, you begin to look at the world through a distorted lens. You can no longer be open to other possibilities in relation to your stressors other than “that is right so this is wrong” or “this is good so this is bad.” (2)
Examples of these black and white thoughts could be:
- “Being attractive means losing weight”
- “Fruits and vegetables are good, but anything else is bad”
- “I cheated on my diet, so I am a failure”
From these thoughts, food rules, food rituals, compensatory exercise, and restriction are more likely to develop (2). Having this rigid mindset inevitably leads to failure as the rules, rituals, and behaviors become unsustainable, and our definition of success becomes more narrow. If you are unable to do the “right” thing, feelings of shame and guilt are likely to come up, along with anxiety. If you are suffering with an eating disorder or disordered relationship with food, that anxiety and feeling of failure is fuel for your eating disorder to continue to thrive (3). Though it may seem that we live in this black and white world, there are many shades of grey to which we can reside.
“Living in the grey” is a mindset which holds the notion that there is no right or wrong way to do life. There is so much that lies in between the spectrum of black and white, where you are able to accept that each situation you encounter is unique and that there is no perfect way to approach every one. But how are you able to work towards this mindset shift?
How to move away from black and white thinking
1. Take a wider view
It can be comforting to put ideas into neat boxes, but life is messy and taking the time to recognize that there is a wider range of thoughts and emotions rather than “this” or “that” can help situations seem less catastrophic. In practice this could looks like: reading different books, listening to podcasts or news sources to help you start to think about life through a larger lens.
Notice how you feel when listening to these various sources and how some of this information may be impacting you. While understanding that there are many different ways to view a similar topic, consuming too much media may not be helpful for you.
2. Practice speaking in a neutral way
If you catch yourself in a in a pattern of black and white thinking, try to challenge those ideas with thinking of a more neutral one. This allows you to view a situation from a more rational perspective and can help to work against some of the distorted beliefs around food or body.
Try the following:
- Write down the black and white thoughts you are having, for example: "I feel full, I ate too much - I'm going to gain weight".
- Identify where the judgement or assumption is coming in. For example, with the above black and white thought "I feel full, I ate too much - I am going to gain weight". The judgement is in the latter half of that statement, "I ate too much - I am going to gain weight" is implying that fullness always equates to weight gain.
- Remove the judgement from the sentence: "I feel full". In doing so this allows you to be more connected to your body, recognize the fullness without immediately labeling this as "good" or "bad". It just is.
- Continue 1-3 with additional black and white thoughts. Keep this on your phone or somewhere easily accessible for you.
- Recognize when these thoughts are coming up and practice with the more neutral thoughts.
This is going to feel weird at first, no doubt about it. But with practice, it becomes more familiar! If starting to speak in a more neutral way feels overwhelming, try imagining you are speaking with a loved one or person you respect. How would you frame the black and white thoughts they have in a more neutral way? This can help you start practicing speaking neutrally.
3. Build your window of tolerance with discomfort
It’s not easy to sit in discomfort, but it can be one of the most powerful things you can do in your journey to recovery. Venturing out of black and white and into the grey area can be scary. It’s easy to avoid those feelings of discomfort by pushing them away, or convincing yourself that everything is peachy.
As Bri Campos says, it’s okay to “sit in the suck”. It’s okay to think “wow, this is hard,” or “this is so unfair.” Challenge yourself to let these thoughts in, and know that you don’t have to “fix” them right away. Engaging in a mindfulness practice or yoga may be helpful for practicing sitting in the silence and being rather than fighting the emotions coming up.
Kristin Neff has several guided meditations to help curate more self compassion while you are learning to navigate "sitting in the suck".
Challenging black and white thinking patterns can be tough - no doubt about it. With a black and white way of thinking, it is common to experience feelings of guilt or shame. However, as you shift away from this rigid mindset, it becomes easier to challenge food rules, try new things, and ultimately make peace with food because you are giving yourself the freedom to live in the grey. Not to mention, there is a whole lot of grace and forgiveness waiting for you in the grey area.
If you find yourself struggling with feelings of guilt, shame, or failure as a result of black and white thinking drop us a line and join our 24/7 Eating Disorder Support through NourishRX's Eating Disorder PATH or Jumpstart to Intuitive Eating Course.