3 Ways to Address ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking
16th June 2022 | Author: Bianca Skilbeck
Recently, I returned from a month-long trip to Nepal.
Amongst sightseeing in and around Kathmandu and soaking in the chilled-out vibes of tourist-town, Pokhara, I spent 10 days as part of a group, hiking the Annapurna base camp trail.
When telling people about my holiday, one of the most common responses (questions? statements?) I get, is oh, that must have been fantastic!
And it was! Walking around the Himalayas was spectacular, unique, special, breathtaking, and all of the things that you might imagine.
However, I can’t lie…..
Whilst it was fantastic, the reality of the experience was that it was also so many other things.
It was exhausting and challenging. I had fun with our group, and at times felt very alone. I felt proud of my efforts, and at times, hated every moment of those steep ascents and descents (I don’t want to admit how many times I caught myself singing along with Shirley Manson, THIS. IS. NOT. MY. IDEA. OF. A. GOOD. TIME….shout out to us 80’s and 90’s babies!!).
Once we got to the top, it was raining and snowing and all our gear got wet (with no way to dry it), was it fun putting on wet shoes and socks the next day to do it all over again for another 8 hours? Of course not.
Also, I got sick. Like really sick, a lot. Within the first couple of days of landing, I picked up a bacterial stomach infection which ended up needing antibiotic treatment. At base camp I got altitude sickness and had to be rushed back down the next morning. If all of that wasn’t enough, I kid you not, the very last meal I ate before I caught my flight back home gave me food poisoning, that has also ended up needing antibiotic treatmnet. Unspeakable things happened on that flight which I think will honestly have me laughing in years to come.
When I mention this roller-coaster of a journey with my health, I have also been asked, do you regret the trip?
It got me thinking about the all-or-nothing type of thinking that I think most of us have found ourselves in at some stage.
All or nothing thinking is almost always a core feature that we see in the presentation of eating disorders, as it helps to create, support, and maintain not just disordered eating patterns, but many of the cognitive and behavioural patterns that we see in all types of mental health conditions.
Have you ever caught yourself thinking (and perhaps changing your behaviours based on) any of the following types of statements:
- If I have even one small piece of cake, it will ruin my diet
- I can’t keep chocolate at home, I will just eat it all
- It’s better for me to avoid going out, I will just be tempted to eat ‘bad’ food
- Today has been a bad day, I need to eat better tomorrow
- I’m trying to avoid bad food
- My body is disgusting
- I have nothing to wear that I look good in
All of these statements are just a few examples of this “all or nothing” thinking, which rests on the idea that there is a way to eat that is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; a way to do life or have a body that is ‘good or bad’.
It’s the kind of thinking which is often the product of the little perfectionist or ‘control freak’ (as some of my clients like to self-describe) within, that is trying to seek a sense of reassurance, safety, or sense of self-worth or love.
So, first thing. If you identify with any of the above statements (in the realms of food, eating, body image or otherwise), take a deep breath.
Have some self-compassion (which you can read more about HERE). This is so common, and so normal. I think most people can relate to this at least some point in their life. So, there is nothing strange or wrong about the fact that you have found yourself in these thinking spirals; we all have done it, so congratulations on being officially diagnosed as human!
Next, take a look at the following three tips for helping to address and begin to shift these patterns.
1. Use the word “and” to join your sentences
THIS is one of my favourites. In fact maybe my actual favourite way to help shift the needle on all or nothing thinking.
To demonstrate this point, let’s take one of the examples above, “my body is disgusting”.
In a traditional CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) approach to this sort of internal dialogue, you might be instructed to identify that thought and then change it. For example, instead of saying to yourself, “my body is disgusting”, you might be asked to replace this with, “my body is valuable” (or something like that).
Or, in a positive psychology approach, you might be asked to change the thought to “my body is beautiful”.
The problem that I find with these approaches, is that actually, it is really hard to actually ‘change’ our thoughts! Like near impossible. Especially if we are being asked to change the thought to something we don’t quite believe or buy into.
A far better approach, I have found, is rooted in an approach called DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), which suggests that rather than ‘change’ our thinking, we work on ‘expanding’ our thinking, and thinking in multi-faceted ways. In this approach, we are not trying to dismiss or discount our thoughts or feelings which may be very real and very true to us. We are not being asked to fight with thought or feelings, because the fight is usually futile. Often when we fight with ourselves, just like when we fight with another person, the fight just gets bigger.
Instead, we are being asked to add to our thinking.
So in our example here, if we notice the thought, “my body is disgusting”, rather than fight with it, we remove the metaphorical 'full stop'. This might sound, for example, like “my body is disgusting, AND it is worthy of respect”.
My advice when choosing something to add to your sentence, is choose something that you believe. Something that you can’t argue with. Don’t fight with the original thought, just expand it. In this way, what we aim for in the long run is that this begins to take the sting out of the original thought, that is starts to water it down a little. That in the long run, we start to think in more multi-dimensional ways that take us away from this all or nothing style of thinking.
2. Swap “Is this true?”, for “Is this helpful?”
Often times when we get caught up in a negative all or nothing loop, we get stuck on trying to figure out if what we are telling ourselves is ‘true’.
…..“Today has been a bad day, I need to eat better tomorrow”, “I’m putting on weight”, “I can’t go, everyone will judge me”, “I can’t do that, I’m not good enough”….
All of these statements, if we actually try to ‘answer’ them or figure out whether they are true or false, lead us down a rabbit hole of either:
- Getting nowhere because there is no true or false answer, it’s subjective (and therefore just leads to more rumination)
- We believe that we find the answer, and then we change our decisions accordingly; often not for the better when it was a distressing thought to begin with.
So, it’s time to upgrade your questions.
Instead of “is this a true statement”, ask yourself, “is this a helpful statement”?
Suddenly, “I can’t try out that dance class, I’m not good enough”, becomes not a question of whether or not you are good enough, but a question of the helpfulness of this statement and whether or not in helps you to align yourself with your values.
Would not ‘trying the dance class’ align with your values? Then sure, don’t do it; it’s your life and you have your own agency to choose your course of actions. But, if ‘not trying the dance class’ doesn’t align with your values, then it takes you to the obvious conclusion; you need to try the dance class, whether or not you’ve deemed yourself good enough.
And there, you have your answer.
3. Zoom out
When we find ourselves in all or nothing thinking, what usually coincides is that we’ve ‘zoomed in’ too much on the picture, and in doing so, have lost some of the detail that actually matters.
For example, you may find yourself saying, “I can’t eat that cake, it will ruin my diet”. Yet, when we take a step back and look at our whole diet (in the truest sense of the label, your diet just being what you eat), is it true that one piece of cake will discount the nutritious meals that you ate throughout the rest of the day? Of course not.
Moreover, is it true that cake is a ‘bad’ food that shouldn’t be eaten? Definitely not (without a resounding DEFINTIELY!).
If we step back from all of our ideas about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, and just look at food for what it is; a composition of different macro and micro nutrients that have been prepared/made/grown differently, we find that there actually is no ‘bad’ food. Your body uses all food. Whatever it is given, it uses it.
Moreover (again!), food is not solely something that we eat for physical sustenance. If we ‘zoom out’ on health, we find that health is not just physical, but also mental, emotional, social, spiritual, etc.
(As a side note, and moving in to more about the topic of intuitive eating: When we start thinking about food in these more neutral ways, that is when we can actually start tuning into what our bodies are telling us about what we actually want and need, rather than what we ‘should’ have or do).
Of course, these examples all relate to food or body image, but the principles extend way beyond this.
So the next time you find yourself in an all or nothing thinking spiral, take these steps.
Deep breath. Add an ‘and’ to your statement with an additional statement that you believe to be true. Ask yourself not if your thinking is true, but if it’s helpful; if it leads you closer to your values or further away from them. Then zoom out. What is the bigger picture?
Which leads me back to my experience in Nepal, which proved a little tumultuous at time.
Do I regret the trip, given that there were so many elements of difficulty and that I spent a lot of time quite unwell?
No, I don’t regret it. It was spectacular, unique, memorable, AND I learned a lot about challenge, difficulty, and resilience.
Would it be helpful for me to regret the trip just because it was difficult? Probably not. It won’t change anything, and I don’t value living with regret. Therefore, I would rather remind myself of the positives, of which there were also many.
As for zooming out, well that one was easy. I was, after all, in the Himalayas.