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 & 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 this 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? Let’s dig in below.
Steps to “living in the grey”
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.
2. Get critical about your feed
Social media is a curation of your thoughts/beliefs based on what you choose to follow/like/etc. Remember that posts that come up while you scroll are often just content that you engage with the most and not an accurate depiction of reality. Because we only see one side of the story on social media, this can encourage black and white thinking.
Consider following pages that have broader perspectives on body image and diet culture, or maybe taking a break completely to identify how you feel about issues without any outside influence
3. Find a more neutral stance
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. For example - when thinking something such as, “I feel full, I ate too much” (which is typically stemming from a belief that feeling fullness is a sign of failure or that you did something wrong) could you attempt to reframe with something that is more factual or neutral such as, “I nourished my body with food and no longer feel hungry”. 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.
4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable
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. Processing these uncomfortable thoughts will help to move you forward in your recovery journey.
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.