"I can't eat this cookie! I won't eat this cookie! Oh well, maybe just one. Now I blew it! I may as well eating them all and start my diet again tomorrow."
Is this a familiar scenario? Many people who suffer with food and weight problems also struggle with Black-and-White Thinking. This means seeing ourselves as either on or off our diet, good or bad, perfect or a failure. Black-and-White thinkers swing back and forth between two extremes. We have trouble even imagining that there could be options, compromise, or a middle ground.
We learn Black-and-White Thinking from many sources, such as our family, the dieting industry, and society. Your parents may have told you that you were "wonderful" one day, and then labeled you as "bad" the next, rather than pointing out your specific strengths or weaknesses. You may have observed your mom eating excessive amounts of food one day, and starving herself the next. The dieting industry tries to convince us that eating one piece of candy will make us fat, and we get messages from our culture that if we are fat we are bad. We're left with a simplistic kind of reasoning. Good or bad. All or nothing. Always or never. Black or white. In reality, one piece of anything doesn't make anybody fat. And fat doesn't mean bad. (It may mean sad, hurt, mad, or it may be your natural body weight, but it doesn't mean bad.)
Although the motive in attempting to be at the so-called "good" extreme is to avoid the other "bad" extreme, struggling to be perfectly "good" sets us up to fail and become "bad.” Depriving oneself of food eventually causes one to overeat. Excessive exercising causes burnout or injury and often leads to the inability to exercise at all. Pretending to be happy all the time and avoiding other feelings eventually leads to depression (which is often the result of pressing down your feelings). Needing to see ourselves as perfect only causes a constant feeling of inadequacy.
The most common result of perfectionism is low self-esteem. Being perfect is an impossible goal. If you objective is to be perfect - perfect eater, perfect body, perfect feelings, perfect girlfriend, perfect wife, mother, student, child - and perfection is impossible, then you have a recipe for failure.
In the early stages of healing food, weight and body issues, our Black-and-White Thinking causes difficulty because we tend to see ourselves as being either perfect or complete failures. We forget that recovery is an ongoing, ever-changing, sometimes painstakingly slow process. If we eat something we consider less than perfect, we are quick to tell ourselves, "See, this isn't working. I'll never recover.” However, we guarantee that nobody (and that means nobody-okay, so we're being black-and-white!) gets into recovery and suddenly becomes a "perfect eater (or a "perfect person").
In fact, recovery is about letting go of the need to be perfect. It's also about letting go of the idea that you're a failure. It may be hard to believe, but there is a vast array of options that we call Rainbow Thinking. Rainbow thinking is the alternative to Black-and-White Thinking. It means having numerous options instead of only two. It means seeing all the colors of the rainbow instead of only black and white. It means having access to all our feelings.It is strength.It means believing that good enough is good enough!
Let's take a look at how Rainbow Thinking gives us more choices than Black-and-White Thinking. We used to think bread was a "bad" food and salad was a "good" food, and so we would attempt to eat a lot of salad and no bread (particularly in public!) Let's say this was the "black" in Black-and-White Thinking. And the "white" side of the equation? Having felt so deprived, we would eventually find ourselves downing a whole loaf of bread (particularly when alone). Then, feeling stuffed and ashamed, we vowed never to eat bread again (back to "black"). Until one day, one week, one month later, guess what happened? And so the cycle continued. It never occurred to us that we could have one sandwich, that we deserved to have one sandwich, that one sandwich would not make us fat. Being willing to have a sandwich instead of no bread, or a whole loaf of bread, is an example of Rainbow Thinking. Today we see Rainbow Thinking in many areas of our lives: taking a walk instead of either high-impact aerobics, or sitting on the couch; getting a few errands done instead of either compulsively doing them all, or eating instead of doing any; assertively communicating our anger to a friend instead of either raging, or saying nothing.
Just like anything new, Rainbow Thinking may be uncomfortable at first. However, after spending some time in the middle of the road getting used to being perfectly imperfect, the journey becomes much easier and more enjoyable.
Excerpt from: Don't Diet, Live-it!
By Andrea LoBue, LMFCC and Marsea Marcus, LMFCC
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