What is ‘black and white’ thinking?
Have you ever deprived yourself of something you consider ‘bad’ for you, only to find that’s the one thing you can’t stop thinking about, so you cave in and can’t stop consuming that thing?
Whether it’s chocolate or alcohol, takeaways or online shopping, most of us have been there. And it makes logical sense – you’d think that by going cold turkey on the thing that you have a tendency to overindulge in will be the solution to a healthier you. But unfortunately this is rarely the case, and this kind of approach to changing our behaviour often actually causes more harm than good.
Categorising things into absolutes such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ or ‘always’ and ‘never’ is known as ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Human brains LOVE this kind of thinking, because by giving things a label it removes ambiguity and makes decision-making so much easier. But the reality is that life is messy and complex, and most things are some shade of grey. If we try to categorise everything into boxes this can cause all sorts of problems.
Why is ‘black and white’ thinking problematic?
Research suggests that the use of absolutist words, which is characteristic of ‘black and white’ thinking, is a significant predictor of many mental health issues including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, bipolar disorder and eating disorders (Al-Mosaiwi & Johnstone, 2018). A recent study looked at the effect of the COVID-19 lockdowns and ‘black and white’ thinking styles on students’ mental health. 103 students in Italy were recruited, the majority of whom were female and studying health-related degree courses. It was found that those who engaged in ‘black and white’ thinking were significantly more likely to experience psychological distress, anxiety and depression, and were over five times more likely to suffer from posttraumatic symptoms during the lockdowns than the students who had more flexible thinking styles (Giusti et al., 2020).
Why ‘black and white’ thinking is damaging in relation to diet
Some examples of ‘black and white’ thinking in relation to diet are classifying foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, being ‘on’ and ‘off’ track/ the wagon/ a diet, eating either no cookies or eating the whole pack. Basically, thinking in extremes.
You probably hear ‘black and white’ thinking surrounding diet almost every day, whether it’s coming from the voice in your head, or external sources like colleagues, family, friends or the media. I was watching a TV programme the other day and the character was saying that she likes to eat ‘bad’ foods at the weekend, because in the week she tries to be ‘good’. This categorisation of food into boxes is so ingrained in everyday conversation that you might not even notice it, because it’s become so normalised (thank you diet culture…).
So why is this kind of thinking problematic? Firstly, because it is factually incorrect. Food does not have a moral value. No food is good or bad, it is just food. Some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, but that doesn’t mean that less nutritious foods are ‘bad’, and that more nutritious foods are ‘good’. If you were hiking up a mountain with only a bag of sweets this would actually be a pretty great source of much-needed energy. Equally, if you were about to go and lift heavy weights and just ate a plate of lettuce for lunch this would probably not be a wise move, because lettuce is low in energy and macronutrients, and you might find your session feels harder than usual and performance suffers as a result. So it is simply incorrect to say that sweets are ‘bad’ and that lettuce is ‘good’, because what is bad or good for any one person at any one time depends ENTIRELY on the context.
The second reason why ‘black and white’ thinking is damaging in relation to diet is because it sets you up for failure. It is extremely unrealistic to expect to never eat processed foods, high fat foods, sugar, carbohydrates or other commonly eliminated food groups which might be deemed as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’. What happens when you go to dinner at your friend’s house and they’ve baked a delicious pudding? What happens when you’re on the go all day and your only lunch option is a quick sandwich? What happens when you go out for dinner and there’s nothing on the menu you’re ‘allowed’?
Probably one of two options: option A) You stick to your unrealistic regime but feel miserable because you’re hungry and feel deprived (not to mention you risk upsetting other people who may have catered for you too). Or option B) You give up and eat everything you can get your hands on, not just stopping after one portion but coming back for more and more, because you’re starving after depriving yourself for so long. You tell yourself you’ve blown it now, and your actions no longer matter so you might as well just keep going and eat everything in sight. Then you feel overwhelmed with guilt and shame afterwards, and you restrict in this ‘black and white’ way once again to compensate for your overindulgence.
Neither of these options sound like much fun, do they?
There is however another option, which is the antidote to a ‘black and white’ mindset. We’ll call this option C. With option C, you eat the thing, feel no emotional attachment to it, and move on with your life. It has little to no bearing on your mood, your behaviour or the rest of your day. Surely this is the most desirable response?
We can use the analogy of smashing plates here: If you accidentally dropped a plate on the floor, you wouldn’t then go and smash all of your plates, would you? So if you ate something you wouldn’t normally eat, say a slice of cake, you wouldn’t then go and eat the entire cake, would you? One smashed plate or one slice of cake is no big deal; ten smashed plates or an entire cake is potentially a problem.
How to break free from ‘black and white’ thinking:
1) Recognise it
Try to notice and keep a note of when this kind of thinking typically occurs for you, and in relation to what. Is it worse when you’re stressed, or tired, or hungry? Do you experience in relation to food, exercise, spending money or something else?
2) Question it
Get curious and ask yourself why you might have these beliefs. Be really critical the next time you notice yourself thinking in this way and ask yourself where it’s come from. Have you heard family or friends talking in this way? Is it a message you’ve picked up from the media? And crucially, do you actually have any evidence supporting your belief?
3) Challenge it
Take baby steps to challenge your rigid beliefs. This is not your call to go and eat a whole tub of ice cream, but just have a scoop, and then carry on with your day. Notice how you feel afterwards.
4) Aim for good enough
Perfection every day is unattainable. Maybe you didn’t have time to pack your own homemade lunch today, so you have to buy a sandwich. But that’s really not the end of the world! Being flexible and ‘good enough’ with health behaviours is the key to long-term success.
5) Don’t beat yourself up
Remember that everyone slips up from time to time, it’s totally normal. Feeling guilty is only going to make things worse, so when you do end up reverting to old thought patterns and behaviours (and you will!) then be kind to yourself and try to let it go.
6) Seek professional help
If you feel like your thinking is out of your control and severely affecting your life then perhaps consider speaking with a doctor or therapist for further support.
My two cents
As someone who has identified with ‘black and white’ thinking in the past, I can honestly say that life is so much better when you learn to embrace the grey. No, grey may not be sexy or glamorous, but when it comes to long-term behaviour change and overall happiness it is unbeatable. The stress that comes from always striving for extremes, and the accompanying guilt when those extremes are not met, causes far more problems than having a flexible thinking style does. Because life is not black and white, it is messy, uncertain and beautifully grey.
Al-Mosaiwi, M., & Johnstone, T. (2018). In an absolute state: Elevated use of absolutist words is a marker specific to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Clinical Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/2167702617747074
Giusti, L., Salza, A., Mammarella, S., Bianco, D., Ussorio, D., Casacchia, M., & Roncone, R. (2020). Everything will be fine. Duration of home confinement and "all-or-nothing" cognitive thinking style as predictors of traumatic distress in young university students on a digital platform during the COVID-19 Italian lockdown. Front Psychiatry, 15(11). doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.574812.