Imagine this: you are at a friend’s house watching a movie and your friend offers you some chips. You immediately decline her offer thinking chips are bad and if you have any at all you will be a failure. As you see your friend enjoying the chips, you begin to think maybe one won’t hurt. After you’ve had a handful of chips you feel guilty so you think you might as well finish the bag off because you feel you have already failed.
Or: you forget to set your alarm, sleep in and then have to rush to school. You end up missing breakfast which is a key part of your mechanical eating plan. You feel guilty that you have started the day imperfectly and think, “screw it, I will start again tomorrow” and continue through the day with restricting your food intake.
Both cases represent a thinking style known as “all or none thinking”. It is the belief that some behaviours are all good or all bad1. It perpetuates the mentality that there is perceived success or failure, but no grey area of balance in between. This can make it very difficult to recognize progress. All or none thinking is closely related to perfectionism2. Perfectionism manifests itself in the unreasonably high standards one sets for themselves that can lead to dissatisfaction if expectations are not met3. All or none thinking is what determines whether one’s efforts have met their standards or not2.
The problem with all or none thinking is that one tends to make generalizations based off their actions that are not accurate4. Thinking you are a failure because you ate a bag chips only takes into account the bag of chips and none of the other factors that contribute to your health. Setting high standards for yourself and only allowing yourself to succeed or fail will likely only set you up for failure if your standards are unattainable. This is why having a “grey” area is so important. It is within this space where progress occurs; it is neither success nor failure but the space where one can learn and grow from their experiences.
Human beings cannot achieve perfection. There will always be something that is out of our control. Imposing strict rules for yourself to follow will only narrow the acceptability of your actions and leave you feeling that you have lost more often than not. It will also narrow your range of success and leave you feeling like you have failed while you have actually had many smaller successes along the way. It is okay to want to do your best or be the best version of yourself, but strict standards can be mentally and physically draining, actually decreasing your capacity to perform at your best.
When you find yourself slipping into this pattern of thinking, take a moment to think about the situation and remind yourself that one decision does not determine your ultimate success or failure. For example, in the situation described above, instead of viewing the chips as a “forbidden food”, try to see them without a label and instead, as a means of increased enjoyment while you are spending time with your friend watching a movie. Enjoy your food and allow yourself to move on without lamenting.
Be specific in your thoughts and focus on what is real. If the consequence of your actions (ex. missing a meal) does not directly relate to the outcome (ex. failing at disordered eating recovery), you may be seeing things in too general of terms, leading you to believe something that is not true. Give yourself grace. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to find balance and support you right where you are, not for a version of perfection you are striving for. Learn to live in the grey area where complete success and failure are not the only two options.
- Antoniou E, Bongers P, Jansen A. The Mediating Role of Dichotomous Thinking and Emotional Eating in the Relationship between Depression and BMI. Eating Behaviours. 2017; 26: 55-60.
- Egan S.J, Piek J.P, Dyck M.J, Rees C.S. The Role of Dichotomous Thinking and Rigidity in Perfectionism. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2007; 45 (8): 1813-1822.
- Centre for Clinical Interventions [Internet]. Perfectionism in Perspective. Retrieved from: http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/1%20What%20is%20%20Perfectionism.pdf
- Shindman J. The Albert Ellis Institute [Internet]. All or Nothing Thinking. [about 1 screen]. Retrieved from: http://albertellis.org/all-or-nothing-thinking/