Have you developed all or nothing thinking? The one thing that may help you change

Have you ever wondered why you have the tendency to be so all or nothing oriented with your thinking? Here are some examples of all or nothing thinking:

If I can’t do this perfectly then I don’t even want to try.

Today I’ll clean the whole house, or stay on the couch all day.

I have a paper to write. I must do the whole paper now, or I won’t even start and I’ll put it off to the last minute.

I’m going to train for a marathon, or never start running at all.

A night out means I’m either out all night and nursing a hangover in the morning or I I’ll stay in and mope about FOMO.

To get in shape, I need to go to the gym 5 days a week. If I can’t do it 5 days a week I’ll never improve my fitness.

Binge, or stay on the diet.

And back and forth you go.

In all or nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking as it’s commonly referred to, where is the gray?

After working with clients as a nutritionist and eating disorder specialist for close to ten years, I’ve come to realize a thing or two about all or nothing thinking. It’s common among high achievers, perfectionists and passionately driven individuals and I also notice it’s just as common among those of us who outwardly appear less driven, less successful, or less passionate to perform.

All or nothing thinking is like a mental paralysis or lighting a stick of dynamite. You’re stuck like you have two feet covered in concrete because you’re afraid of something not working out, or you’re feeling the urgency and it works very well in the short term to make shit happen. We develop the brain pattern of all or nothing thinking to, in part, keep ourselves safe from uncertainty. It feels better and safer in many ways to be an all or nothing thinker because it gives a false sense of more control. You feel like you know exactly what to expect or at least that’s what it feels like on the surface. 

When it comes to our health and our bodies specifically, all or nothing thinking can become problematic. Putting it very simply, it can be harmful because we develop the belief that If we’re not perfect at health, the workout regimen, the diet, then we are failing and why even try?

Getting comfortable with the idea of uncertainty can help:

The number one thing affecting people who struggle with all or nothing thinking is they are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is something many people don’t even want to talk about. By talking about it, realizing it, and accepting that we are always living with a certain level of uncertainty you can actually start to see how welcoming uncertainty in your life can be the doorway to learning how to stop the all or nothing-ness. Now, of course, not everything in life is uncertain. We have a great deal of power of choice in many, many aspects of life – just not with everything. We can not totally control our health, other people’s thoughts and actions, or random events.

Let’s pause right now and realize that you do have the brainpower, the intelligence and the capacity to slow down and respond in the moment to what is going on in the vast majority of life situations. This is called being present. There are are, of course, a small number of situations when you actually physically will have a very difficult time being present, such as when being chased by a lion. Then you are just running your ass off to survive and being present would most likely not help you at all.

How to start being okay with uncertainty to get out of all or nothing thinking: 

You can start by telling yourself that you trust yourself. That’s right,  fake it till you make it baby. The brain is one powerful beast and what you hear and say to yourself does affect what how you behave.

You can make decisions as needed rather than having to predict and plan for every little thing. You can learn that being okay with uncertainty is part of life, and remind yourself how all or nothing thinking to avoid dealing with uncertainty is actually causing you more pain than comfort at times.

Let’s break down all or nothing eating as an example. The “all” is when as soon as you have one bite of your forbidden food you believe you’ve “screwed up” so it no longer matters how much you have because you’ll start again tomorrow on your diet. Keep in mind the “nothing” part of all or nothing eating involves deprivation and/or restriction, which  we have scientific evidence to show creates a stronger reward feedback signal to your brain when you do finally have that delicious bite of food, making the pull to overeat even stronger. (As a bonus you then tell yourself you can’t be trusted, leading you right back in to all or nothing-ness). 

There is a complex system of neurochemicals and hormones that play in to binge eating. It is not as simple as all or nothing thinking and I certainly do not mean to form that impression; however, the mental tape recording of what you say to yourself once you’ve had the first bite is very, very powerful in the unfolding of a binge. In fact, what you say to yourself at any time, beyond your relationship to food, is a very powerful predictor of your reality.

When you want to have some chips, telling yourself that you can pay attention as you’re eating, and notice when you’ve had enough chips is a simple example of being present while eating. You can try that.

Uncertainty, for a dieter in particular, is “I don’t know how many chips it will take to feel satisfied, and I’m scared that I’ll overdo it”. The number of chips to eat (as if there is one right number of chips) is a gray area. All or nothing thinking does not allow for any chips, and then that belief perpetuates the over-consuming of chips once you start.

Once you get the hang of this, you will see that uncertainty is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is where your answers lie if you simply follow the rainbow and trust. Uncertainty is where you need to go to learn to trust your own instincts and thoughts. By building trust you will no longer need your old all or nothing beliefs. This doesn’t mean you don’t have choices, control or shape the direction of where you go in life, it simply means that you gain MORE power by being present versus being in autopilot all or nothing thinking. 

You can go out with friends and decide an hour later you’re ready to go home.

You can be physically active differently on different days depending on your energy and how you feel without beating yourself up.

You can enter in to a difficult conversation with a loved one, and trust that you’ll stay present with your emotions and speak accordingly, staying true to yourself.

You can have all the different foods that you wish, and decide at any moment that you’ve had enough, or you need some more.

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Sumner Brooks, MPH, RDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and the founder of EDRDpro which offers continuing education services for eating disorder professionals.

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