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  • Writer's pictureThe Recovery Bean

'All or Nothing' thinking

Hey everyone,

In today's post I wanted to look at 'All or Nothing' thinking: how it is intertwined with our ED's, and how we can overcome it in recovery. This is something I have fallen victim to my entire life, even prior to my anorexia, but it has been highlighted during my illness, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about it.

So what is it? 'All or Nothing' thinking is when we only look to the two extremes, and ignore all the ground that lies between. In our eating disorders, one of the most common ways we implement this is by categorising some foods like salad as 'good', and others - maybe chocolate, as 'bad'. This leads not only to the development of 'fear foods', but can also contribute to a pattern of binging and restricting. This is because if we do allow ourselves to eat or even challenge a food we deem 'bad', then based on an 'all or nothing' mindset, we may have a tendency to view having had a piece of chocolate, for example, as having ruined our day. Due to this, we are more likely to eat way more chocolate or other demonised foods, as we hold the belief that if we have not eaten exclusively 'good', then we might as well just go straight to the other extreme. On top of this, we may feel the need to eat all the 'bad' food in one go so that there will be none available tomorrow, meaning our next effort to restrict to only our safe foods will not be derailed. I also have previously been told by my ED voice, that as a result of eating the one piece of chocolate I will have to compensate the next day, and so despite what may seem logical from the outside, I have taken this as a signal to eat as much as I can whilst I'm still allowing myself to. This is both a mental and a physical response as my body cannot trust when more food will be coming again, and so it resorts to a binge to protect itself from the famine it fears it's about to be forced into.

'All or Nothing' thinking is also evident elsewhere in our eating disorders, as we can hold the belief that we must either be at the height of our illness, or completely recovered, but again - nowhere in between. This ties into the perfectionist nature of many sufferers, as it is striving to be the 'the thinnest', or 'the most unwell', or just 'the best at being anorexic', that results in the loss of real (not perceived) control that we experience. For me at least, this is because despite what my ED was telling me, I've always been aware that my illness was causing me to suffer, but it was this need to reach an extremity that kept me going and prevented me from accepting recovery. Further from this, it can feed into the idea of 'not being sick enough', as we may feel that because we ate that one piece of chocolate, we have failed at having an eating disorder and so we must not be ill anymore.

This same concept applies to recovery too, as following 'All or nothing' thinking, means we are deeply uncomfortable with leaning into the process of healing, as we either need to be at the start e.g. our lowest weight, or have already reached the end destination - healthy. My therapist explained this to me using the analogy of having a bath, so bear with me whilst I try to explain. She asked me "Do you enjoy baths?", to which I replied "No", and she said "Of course you don't". At first I was confused, but she went on to clarify that taking a bath is a process with no real end goal, as following one you don't really feel clean, and so you still have to have a shower which you could have just done in the first place to wrap things up much quicker. Therefore, the only reason one would take a bath is for the pleasure of having one, and due to the way I think, it makes sense that I am opposed to them as enjoying the process of something is not what I do. Based on this knowledge, we need to, for the sake of our recovery and to live in the real world, learn to tolerate and enjoy the 'grey area'.

In recovery, this means learning to embrace moderation and balance in our eating habits, to prevent ourselves from ending up in a binge- restrict cycle, and to enable our bodies to trust us again. In order to do this we need to incorporate these foods we deem bad into our normal diets by repeatedly challenging them until they are free of this title we've given them. Food is just food, it doesn't have a moral value, and so we need to rewire our brains and form new neural pathways which support this view. Consequently we have to use the "Identify, Challenge, REPEAT" method I have discussed previously ( to eradicate our fear foods.

Whilst the process of recovery itself is never going to be pleasurable due to the discomfort it brings, we can take this time to learn to enjoy other processes in life. This is important as we experience life on a spectrum, and so by focusing solely on either end of this, we miss out on all the happiness that occurs in between. Not only this, but by seeing anything short of astounding as being a failure, we are setting ourselves up for a life in which we constantly feel inadequate, as it is unlikely we will ever be satisfied.

So how can we stop? There's no quick fix to overcoming 'all or nothing' thinking, as just like with other aspects of our ED recovery, we have to rewire our brains to accommodate new outlooks, and this takes time. Firstly we need to be able to identify when we are falling into this mindset, and to do this it can be beneficial to look for key words such as "never", "always", "perfect", "impossible", or "ruined". For example following a rough day in recovery, we may think, "I hate this, it's impossible... I'm never going to be free of my ED". Once we have identified that this is a case of 'all or nothing' thinking, we can look at what triggered it, so here it might be that our ED voice won and we are feeling defeated. Knowing this, we then need to challenge our initial thought in the same way we would do a fear food, or ED behaviours, by asking "Is this statement true?", "Is it really impossible?", and "Will I actually never be free?". We can then provide evidence to disprove the statement, such as looking at examples of people who've proved recovery is both possible and worth it.

It isn't going to be easy, and you might be thinking that with all the effort you're putting into the rest of recovery, you don't really have the energy to start challenging these thoughts too! It does feel like that, I'm not going to sugarcoat it... it takes another bit of you that you might not even feel like you have to give. This said, it is absolutely going to be worth it, and more over, it is necessary in order to break through other barriers to your recovery, as like I said, we need to be able to tolerate the process. This is because, with regaining your life feeling so far from reach in early recovery, the thought of the journey ahead can be enough to send you into a relapse if you are of the opinion that you can only exist at either side of it. Consequently, challenging 'all or nothing' thinking is another thing we have to add to our 'recovery to do lists' in order to kick our ED's, and then to be able to live the life we want, which whether you believe me now or not, will exist largely in the middle ground. We will never truly be happy if we are always striving for more, and so it is in this grey area where we will have the most laughs, make the most memories, and be our happiest selves.

I hope everyone' s well,

More from me soon,

Mais// The Recovery Bean <3

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