By Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C
Many of my clients in recovery from eating disorders struggle with “black and white thinking.”
If you are struggling with this you are definitely not alone.
Here are some common examples of eating disorder thoughts that are also “black and white,” or “all or nothing thinking.”
Eating Disorder Thought: “I didn’t exercise today and I ate a cookie. I’m going to the other extreme and becoming an unhealthy person.”
Eating Disorder Thought: “I ate a donut today, which is one of my number one fear food. I can’t possibly be that sick anymore.”
Eating Disorder Thought: “I just ate a brownie, so I’ve already failed at my diet for today. Might as well go finish off the rest of them and then I’ll be good tomorrow.”
The Function of Black and White Thinking
Black and white thinking provides a (false) sense of certainty and “control.” It simplifies life into deceptively neat little boxes where things become either “all good” or “all bad.”
However, the reality is that recovery and life are lived in the grey zone. Both are messy (rather than neat little boxes), and filled with a variety of different shades.
The problem is that when we stay stuck in black and white thinking, we miss out on an assortment of possibilities.
Black and white thinking actually narrows our focus and if you struggle with an eating disorder, can make your world increasingly small.
Challenging Black and White Thinking
It’s important to note that your eating disorder will say anything in order to keep itself alive. However, just because you have a thought does not mean that it is true.
The following concept comes from Carolyn Costin, a therapist and the founder of Monte Nido. Essentially, it’s about responding to your eating disorder thoughts from your “healthy” or “true self” in the moment.
It can sometimes be helpful to write the thoughts out and to make sure that you are ending the dialogue on “the healthy self.”
Eating Disorder Self; “I didn’t exercise today and I ate a cookie. I’m going to the other extreme and becoming an unhealthy person.”
Healthy Self: Not exercising for a day and eating a cookie are both normal and healthy things to do. Your body deserves to rest and you deserve to eat food that you enjoy. Neither of these things will make you “unhealthy.”
Eating Disorder Self: “I ate a donut today, which is one of my number one fear food. I can’t possibly be that sick anymore.”
Healthy Self: It’s awesome that you challenged yourself! However, just because you had a great day in recovery-doesn’t mean that you are suddenly “fine.”
Eating Disorder Self: “I just ate a brownie, so I’ve already failed at my diet for today. Might as well go finish off the rest of them and then I’ll be good tomorrow.”
Healthy Self: All foods can fit into a healthy diet. You didn’t “fail” by eating a brownie. Try to tune into what you actually want right now, rather than simply listening to what you’re eating disorder is telling you to do.
If you are struggling to come up with “healthy self” thoughts, it can be helpful to think about what you’d tell a loved one (or even a child) who said something similar. It's unlikely that you would say some of the cruel and punishing things that you say to yourself, to someone that you love.
It Takes Practice
If your automatic default setting is one of “black and white thinking,” it’s important to be patient with yourself in this process.
It’s just like learning any other skill. You wouldn’t sit down at the piano and expect to be able to play it right away, so try to be compassionate with yourself that it may take some time to learn more helpful thinking patterns.
However, with time and practice you can actually rewire the neural pathways in your brain, until eventually your new “automatic default setting" is healthier and more helpful thinking patterns.
The Eating Disorder Center is a premier outpatient eating disorder therapy center in Rockville, Maryland. We specialize in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. We also offer therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder. We provide eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, easily accessible to individuals in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Silver Spring, Germantown, and Washington D.C. We provide eating disorder recovery coaching via Zoom to people worldwide. Connect with us through our website at www.theeatingdisordercenter.com
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The Eating Disorder Center
We are a premier outpatient eating disorder therapy center in Rockville, Maryland.