Black and White Thinking and Why It's Dangerous

Black and white (also referred to as “all or nothing” thinking occurs when we view something or someone as either all bad or all good. A common example of using black and white thinking is when we have an argument with a friend, loved one, or family member. We may view them as all bad after the argument or fight and discount or ignore the countless positive qualities of them or the good memories we have with them.

The problem with black and white thinking is that very few things in life are truly all bad or all good and there is a lot of gray area that can make us feel uncomfortable. It can be easier to process a situation if we view it as either bad or good because considering ambiguity and the multi-faceted layers of situations can be tiring and confusing.

Black and white thinking can have a significant impact on disordered eating in a number of ways. It reinforces the idea that foods are either bad or good,which can lead to rigid rules about foods and strict categorization about what a person will and won’t eat. Food is not bad or good, it just is! Cookies aren’t evil and broccoli isn’t morally superior to other foods. All foods can fit when a person is able to attain normal eating patterns.

Secondly, black and white thinking reinforces perfectionistic standards, which are dangerous both when a person is active in their eating disorder and when they are in recovery. A common example of this is when a person struggles with binge eating and/or purging. A cycle often develops in which a person will “diet’ or restrict their food intake, become hungry and eat a “bad” food, which then can lead to episodes of binge eating and purging. The mentality is “I was doing well on my diet (nothing thinking) and now I’ve made a mistake, so I might as well binge eat or overeat (all thinking).”

This can be dangerous when a person is in recovery. It’s common for folks to experience slips in behaviors while in recovery, in which they engage in the behavior once or twice..A slip does not have to turn into a relapse, but some folks struggle with acknowledging that they slipped and that it’s possible for them to maintain recovery. This is the gray area that I mentioned before, which can be scary and confusing. However, the gray area is a part of life that we have to live with and it’s easier to live with it when we have the tools to navigate it.

Emily Teegarden