All or Nothing: The Dangers of Getting Trapped in Rigid Thought Patterns — And How to Break Free!

I was recently asked if I thought there was such thing as “good foods” and “bad foods”.  To me, this is like asking “do you want to get stuck in a rigid cycle of all or nothing thinking?”.  The answer is no!

For myself while I was going through my recovery many years ago, and for others who are actively engaging in recovery today, ‘all or nothing’ thinking can be a common yet very limiting and confining behavior centered not just around eating, but branching out to many areas of life.  ‘All or nothing’ thinking occurs in eating disordered behaviors but is not limited to this realm.

Many of us have caught ourselves thinking or feeling: “It has to be this way or nothing at all”, or “I am not able to enjoy my day until I do x, y, and z.”  These limiting thought patterns can make us feel like there are only two extremes to choose from, both of them so extreme that they are unhealthy to maintain and actually diminish our life satisfaction.  It’s like we’re keeping ourselves in a jail cell, yet we don’t have the key.  What gives?

For people who are struggling with disordered eating (and this concept can be applied across many realms, struggles, or concerns), they can arrive at a dichotomous crossroads where there is some sort of decision or classification made about themselves and their experience.  These choices might be related to weight, body shape, numbers, or certain food types and amounts.  Once there is a “rule” set about these things, it can become quite rigid and hard to challenge.  Some folks may decide that certain foods with lower fat or carb or sugar content are “good” foods, while everything else is “bad”.  This is based on a fear of gaining weight, but I also see it as a fear of letting go of control.

What is the function of the “all or nothing” thinking?  There can be numerous reasons for this, but one of the most common is that seemingly only having two choices (“good or bad”, or “right or wrong”) helps to create a focus where they can put their energy and attention.  Food might be something that they can control, when something else in their lives feels out of control — whether it be emotions, a family situation, a relationship, etc.  Food can be the “red herring“, the object that is focused on instead of what’s really going on underneath.  The problem is, when a rule such as “I can only have x y and z food (even if I don’t really like it), but not a b and c foods (even if I love those foods)”, the body and the emotional self begins to feel deprived and to crave those foods that “aren’t okay”.  This can commonly lead to eventual out of control behavior around food, such as bingeing or emotionally overeating and “feeling out of control.”

In recovery, I help my clients find the “grey area”.  This can be very scary at times, as living in the “all or nothing” has felt safe, albeit not healthy at times.  Only in the grey area can we embrace life’s imperfections, its joy, its silliness, its sadness, and to find ways to tolerate all of these without needing rules to govern them.  In the grey area, there are no rules about food, emotions, or the human experience.  So, to answer my original question, : “NO, I do not think there are things such as “good foods” and “bad foods”, as these trigger the dichotomous thinking and lead to a rigid, rule-driven, stuck emotional place.  By offering ourselves and our experiences compassion, we can eat all foods — especially the ones that we really love! — in moderation and enjoyment.

I don’t want to undermine the importance of nutrition.  Getting our nutritional needs met is very important! Some foods have higher and more diverse nutritional content than others, and these foods will make our bodies feel strong, energized, and healthy.

I think that sometimes when ‘all or nothing’ thinking becomes extreme, folks can become convinced that only certain foods with low fat, sugar, salt or carbs means “eating healthily”, when in reality, we need a good dose of those things for our bodies to function fully.  Consulting with a nutritionist is a great way to learn about your body’s specific needs.  When fear consumes certain foods for you, the true meaning of nutrition and health can go out the door, and the “food rules” can become more about control than about truly nurturing your body.  Don’t forget to also nurture your soul — sometimes an ice cream sundae is just what your soul ordered!

By exploring what’s really going on underneath, and having compassion and tolerance for those feelings, we are able to move forward and walk the life of value that we’ve always wanted.

Tell me, what is your experience with “food rules” or “all or nothing thinking” and what are some ways to find more balance and flexibility?