Are You an All-or-Nothing Thinker?

Distorted thinking is often at the root of the dissatisfaction we feel in life, and is especially common in individuals who struggle with addictions, depression and eating disorders. Black or white thinking is characterized by extremes. Rather than seeing shades of gray, people see only black or white. Commonly used words include always, never, forever, perfect and impossible while common phrases include “I’m never good enough” or “Everyone hates me.”

The Dangers of Black or White Thinking

Black or white thinking manifests in a number of ways. For example, when asked how you�re doing, things are either great or the worst they�ve ever been. In the case of someone with an eating disorder, certain foods are �bad� and should be avoided completely while others are �good� and will not lead to weight gain.

People often succumb to black or white thinking in their relationships. A young girl�s mother may tell her she needs to eat more meals with the family. Rather than engaging in a discussion, she immediately concludes that her mother is against her so she is toxic and must be avoided altogether.

While some relationships are indeed abusive or toxic, those who struggle with black or white thinking are likely to take an extreme stand even in routine disagreements. One mistake and the other person is cut out of their lives forever.

People who think in black or white terms confuse their perceptions for facts. For example, a friend encourages you to stop drinking and you instantly conclude that this person is siding with others who have the same view and against you. In reality, the friend cares enough to try to help, but the black and white thinker is only able to respond from an emotional place.

Seeing Shades of Gray

In reality, there are very few absolutes in life. People are not perfect nor are they failures. Smart people do stupid things; we hurt the people we love, and even the most difficult situation can improve with time.

It’s possible to overcome black or white thinking. The process begins with practicing mindfulness and learning to identify thoughts and emotions. Then you can deliberately challenge the validity of your beliefs and come up with alternative conclusions.

All feelings are valid, but not all feelings are helpful. For instance, it’s understandable to feel hurt when someone offers feedback, but it is not acceptable to react from a place of pain or frustration. Setting boundaries helps people maintain enough perspective to see their relationships as they truly are. Rather than being enmeshed so neither party can breathe or isolating yourself because you don’t feel safe, you can find a happy medium.

When at all possible, it’s important to normalize the relationships in our lives. There are no perfect relationships; sometimes people say things they shouldn’t, and we all have feelings that are uncomfortable. The key is to differentiate when someone is purposefully hurting us and when we are simply having a disagreement with someone who cares about us.

In treatment for addictions and eating disorders, the following skills are emphasized:

� Distress tolerance, which teaches people how to tolerate their emotions without attempting to make the situation better or worse

â�¢ Distinguishing whether someone else’s perception is accurate and helpful or inaccurate and hurtful

� Accepting accountability and confronting others so you can learn to accept or reject feedback without taking it personally

Just as important is remembering that change requires time and practice. Finding balance is about embracing imperfection and seeing the world in textures and gradients rather than stark extremes.

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Dr. Carolyn Ross is an internationally known physician, author and speaker on addictions, obesity and eating disorders. She serves as a consultant to The Ranchâ��s eating disorder treatment program in Tennessee, maintains a private practice in Denver, is the author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating as well as The Joy of Eating Well and also hosts a weekly radio show, The Vital Life. 

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