Living in the Grey during Recovery & Beyond
Author: Cindy Engelstad B.A. ICF
Black or white thinking is a common cognitive distortion in people suffering with an eating disorder. It can show up in the way someone may think about themselves, their body, food choices and more. Eating disorders often interpret that food and weight are all or nothing issues and tends to see everything in extremes.
Our minds are constantly trying to predict, analyze and plan, therefore distorted thinking can feel like it offers a way to adequately prepare for the worst. Such thinking can feel productive and create a sense of security, although it is often a false and fleeting sense of security. Overtime black or white thinking leads to experiencing increased anxiety, shame, guilt, perfectionism and feeling loss of control.
Black or white thinking leaves someone feeling either good or bad about themselves, with little to no room in between. For example, if you has a ‘good’ day of eating, you will experience momentary relief that it all worked out. The problem with this momentary relief is that it is a short-lived feeling and for every high there is an equal low. Therefore, a ‘bad’ day of eating, will often be met with feelings of shame and guilt. It may also lead to feeling out of control, which in turn takes away from the ability to feel and build self-trust.
Black or white thinking often shows up in eating disorders as rigidity around food, exercise and behaviours in thoughts that produce absolutes and extremes. When your mind is splitting into categories such as good or bad, right or wrong, should or shouldn’t, that can be a tip off that black or white thinking is occurring. The eating disorder can use such thoughts to its advantage, which is why creating awareness around these thoughts and how they are controlling behaviour is an active part of recovery.
Recovery from an eating disorder involves learning to think and live in shades of grey. Living in the grey area means accepting for example that all foods can be part of a balanced and healthy life. It means learning to incorporate fear foods. It means eating and exercising in ways that are flexible enough to be sustainable. It means embracing ambiguity, humanness and body trust. It means creating space to get curious about what lays in-between the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’.
It is important to remember that nothing in nature is only one way or another, we all exist in the grey areas in between. The eating disorder often wants you to believe there are only two options, which is why it is important to notice statements or thoughts that support black or white thinking such as “if I start eating I’ll never stop.” Begin to acknowledge such thoughts and respond with compassion, with something like “I know it can feel that way, but my only options are not to eat nothing or eat everything. There is so much space in between.”
Recovering from black or white thinking and an eating disorder is not about ensuring that we will not experience pain, frustration or setbacks in our lives. Living in the grey is about learning how to respond to the ups and downs of human life in meaningful, productive and flexible ways. Challenging black or white thinking can be scary, but it is an important part of recovery that leads to experiencing a more rich and full life.