To all the go-getters with big goals and ambitions, to friends out there that can be the epitome of a health one day, and a little monster-eating white castle saying “I’ll start again on Monday” mentality: This blog is for you!
For ambitious people, there’s an expectation within themselves that they must be running on all cylinders, working at optimal speed and efficiency to be “the best.” One must make compromises to make this happen. Maybe it’s “no time to make dinner,” or “can’t see friends, or take time to do the things we enjoy doing.” Many of us have fallen into one of these categories (if we aren’t in one of them currently). Some will call it prioritizing or cutting out the excess, but what this does is deplete us and leave us feeling exhausted, frustrated, and down on ourselves. While this doesn’t mean we should be avoiding our work and calling it self-care, we need to be wary of this 200% or 0% mentality because this is black-and-white thinking.
What is black-and-white thinking?
Black-and-white thinking is a cognitive distortion where a person views things in an either-or dichotomy. There are many names for this, including polarized thinking, splitting, or dichotomous thinking. When a person thinks this way, they take on a sort of all-or-nothing mentality, which can cause a person to appear rigid or unforgiving and view each situation in their life as an option between extremes. Many of us have experienced this thinking about values or morals that we hold near and dear to our hearts or maybe based on how we think things ought to be. Where we run into trouble with black-and-white thinking is when we fail to see all the nuances that occur in life that make things a little bit more complicated, the areas of grey.
Here are some examples of black-and-white thinking with bolded words to look out for:
- “I will either pass this test and be successful, or I will fail and be known as a loser forever.”
- “If I don’t finish all thirty things on my to-do list today, then the day was a complete waste.”
- “To be good at my job, I can’t have any social life or see anyone because it will only distract me.”
- “I planned to work out for an hour, and I’m tired after thirty minutes. If I can’t pull it together for the whole time, it’s not even worth it.”
- “I ate an unhealthy breakfast, so I’m going to eat junk all day; I already screwed it up; what’s the point?”
Diet mentality and weight loss
In diet mentality, we also see this black-and-white thinking. For decades, dieting has preached the idea that to lose weight, we need to stick to a strict regimen where there are no fat, sugar, or carbs, and dare I say it… no fun! If you stray from this restrictive mentality, then scolding is in order here are some examples:
- “You must not want this bad enough.”
- “You just don’t have the willpower.”
- “You must be lazy.”
- “Are you sure you are even trying?”
- “You just have to get back on track, or you’re going to get worse.”
It’s interesting how people talk about making what we thought was a positive lifestyle change quickly becomes a berating lecture where you ultimately have failed or will fail. This mentality also means we begin to approach food from a mindset of anxiety. “If I have those chips or that piece of cake or that cookie (heaven forbid), then I’m going to ruin all of my hard work!” Looking at every decision we make about a healthy lifestyle from the standpoint of right and wrong; can leave us feeling that every decision is a point for or against us and can lead to decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is simply defined as being tired of making decisions and thus not having the energy to think clearly to make them. This phenomenon also means that if every decision takes much energy, we are likely to make mistakes as we grow tired; (cue the self-deprecating failure mentality).
The problem with all of this is that it is skewed data! The cookie is not “bad” food and doesn’t erase the time spent being active or the dozens of healthy choices you made that day. Diet culture with the idea that every “bad food” = an hour on the treadmill will leave you with the belief that dessert requires penance and forgiveness as though you did something wrong.
Studies also have shown that diet mentality negatively impacts mental health and increases the likelihood of losing control once off the diet; in addition to being unable to maintain the weight changes, it also perpetuates these “all on, all of” mentalities. All of the above is to say that diets are likely not maintainable and do not lead to long-term success.
How can we control black-and-white thinking?
When it comes to black-and-white thinking, it is essential first to be able to label it. Be wary of using absolute or extreme language that assumes things MUST BE a certain way. Once you can mark it and pick out some leading words like those bolded in the above examples, here are some tips to get away from this harmful mentality in different areas of your life:
- Self-care is not excess. It is IMPERATIVE: To be on top of our goals, we NEED a good night’s sleep, appropriate nutrition to fuel our bodies, time to unwind, and time to connect with others.
- Be kind to yourself: We may not always do this perfectly, and life will tip the balance, but if you feel exhausted and depleted, look and see what is missing and try something new.
- Reflect on the areas you struggle with black-and-white thinking: Do you tie success in life to success in work? Where do these expectations come from? Working with a therapist allows you to uncover some of these beliefs and understand which ones you believe and maybe some that somebody told you. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) work is a great way to explore unhelpful thinking and learn more supportive ways to look at our lives and consider the areas of grey.
- Learn about intuitive eating- If you struggle with black-and-white thinking around food, diet, and lifestyle, it would likely be helpful to work with a registered dietician to learn to be receptive to your body and shed unhealthy eating mentalities.