The “All or Nothing” Thinking of an Eating Disorder

This post was originally posted several months ago.

Is it all black or white in your world? Do you measure yourself on a short scale of Success …… Failure and accept nothing in between?

For clients struggling with bulimia and binge eating, this is a common personality trait.  Setting very high standards for yourself personally, then beating yourself up when you don’t achieve them.  Setting unrealistic, unachievable goals, then failing to reach them and feeling rotten about yourself.

Your ‘all or nothing’ way of thinking is particularly destructive when it comes to the negative behaviours you would love to break.  Consider this scenario:

Monday Morning, about 7am.

Jan thinks: “Ok Jan, it’s a new week, and the diet starts here.  No breakfast, I’ll have a salad from the buffet in work, and a small healthy dinner.  No more bingeing, that’s it.  Let’s go!”

(Jan heads off to work).

Monday Morning, about 11am, in work:

Sara says: “Hey Jan, I’m nipping down to the coffee shop, want anything?”                                                                                                                           

Jan: “Ah, no thanks Sara, I’m trying to be good” (tummy rumbles at the thought of a latte and a donut)

Sara: “Ah Jan, a coffee won’t kill you, don’t leave me feeling guilty on my own!”                                                                                                                                     

Jan: (starving), “Go on then, I’ll have a regular latte and a chocolate donut, thanks”.

Monday Lunchtime, canteen in work

Jan thinks: “Well I’ve blown it now, with that donut and latte earlier, I might as well enjoy my lunch, I can start again tomorrow”

Jan: “Hi, I’ll have the spanish omelette with chips please, and coleslaw on the side, thanks”.

Monday evening, at home.

Jan’s inner negative, critical voice is speaking in Jan’s head: “you’re so stupid, you have no willpower, why can’t you just shut your big mouth and stop eating?  You didn’t even get through the morning today, how useless is that?  It’s no wonder you’ve no boyfriend, you’ve no self-control!!!” etc etc etc

Jan binges her way through the rest of the evening to the soundtrack of her negative critical voice…..

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?  If it does, then read on as I break it down into the points where it could have gone differently – think Sliding Doors if you’ve seen the movie.

Look at this again:

Jan thinks: “Ok Jan, it’s a new week, and the diet starts here.  No breakfast, I’ll have a salad from the buffet in work, and a small healthy dinner.  No more bingeing, that’s it.  Let’s go!”

This plan was doomed to fail from the outset, for the following reasons:

1. No Breakfast.

By 10am you will be hungry, you are expecting your body and brain to work and function with no fuel or energy.  You are already setting yourself up for a trip to the coffee shop.

2. I’ll have a salad from the buffet in work

What’s the worst thing about buffets, canteens etc? The delicious smells of breaded chicken, roast joint of meat, gravy, the visual sight of a large tray of chips/fries, attractively lit to look even more yummy than they taste.  What chance have you got when you’re starving (if you resisted the coffee shop) or already guilty (if you went to the shop)?

3. …and a small healthy dinner.

Well, Jan might have had a small healthy dinner but given the opportunities to fail between breakfast and dinner, it’s unlikely she would stick to this.  In my experience Jan is either going to have the ‘wrong’ sort of dinner, or she might eat a small healthy dinner but then binge anyway once the voice kicks in.

What I’m also hearing throughout this little dialogue is that Jan has not done any shopping for the diet plan she wants to be on.

Breakfast:  Was there any breakfast food to be had in the house?  Even if she had wanted breakfast, did she have what she needed at her fingertips?  Monday morning is not the time to come up with a new plan – Saturday or Sunday, when you can plan properly, shop for several days in advance and get some stuff ready on Sunday night for Monday morning makes far more sense.

Lunch: If Jan had prepared a fresh chicken or tuna salad for herself with some brown wholegrain rice or bread and brought it in with her, she may have been less likely to get a large hot lunch in work, or she could have avoided the canteen altogether and had lunch at her desk, or out in the park.

Dinner: Jan said “a small healthy dinner”. Had she shopped for this dinner? Was the food ready for her in the fridge or was she leaving it until after work to go shopping? This is not a good idea.  You are tired and hungry after work, the worst combination for sensible, proactive shopping.

All or Nothing Thinking

Finally, Jan fell foul of her all or nothing personality.  Once she had the latte and donut, it was all over for her.  She had failed, and punished herself further then by having the wrong lunch, thereby ensuring when she got home she was setting herself up for a verbal pasting from her inner voice, which would almost inevitably lead to a binge.

Ok, so I hear you saying “so far so normal,  but what can I do about it?”

1.      You can plan better, as outlined above, so you give yourself some realistic chance of eating more healthily and in a more balanced way; and

2.      You can use the tool below to try and modify your All or Nothing way of viewing Success, and Failure.

Date: Morning Afternoon Evening
Monday      
Tuesday      
Wednesday      
Thursday      
Friday      
Saturday      
Sunday      

*Table adapted from Jacob, F. (2001). Solution Focused Recovery from Eating Distress

Take Jan as an example. Because she had a blip (i.e. a trip to the coffee shop) on Monday  morning, she leaves the box for Monday morning blank.

However, if Jan had then taken out her home made salad at lunchtime, and not gone to the canteen, and then got through the rest of the afternoon without eating anything ‘bad’ (i.e. she could have had a healthy snack), then she could write GOOD in the afternoon box.

If she then ate a normal dinner and didn’t binge that evening, she would write GOOD in the evening box. If she binged, then she would leave the evening box blank.

This little chart gives you THREE opportunities every day to succeed, and 21 opportunities every week.  We often think we are a TOTAL failure, and never get ANYTHING right, but this chart will help you see when you DO get it right, when you DO succeed.  You are not bingeing non-stop 24/7, no matter how strongly it might feel like you are.  See below? Succeeding, nine times a week.

Date: Morning Afternoon Evening
Monday   Good Good
Tuesday Good Good  
Wednesday Good Good  
Thursday     Good
Friday Good Good  
Saturday      
Sunday      

We can use this chart for other things too, but for now, why not see if it works for you in helping to reduce your negative thoughts about your bingeing, and also help you succeed more often.

If you found this post helpful and practical, then you may also find my new, online, self-help program for eating disorders helpful.  Please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be notified when we have resolved an unfortunate glitch with our tutorial streaming, to be sorted within the next seven days (from 27 July 2011).  Practical exercises, Therapist guidence and feedback from our ‘Virtual Group’ will all help you to manage your behaviors better. 

www.facebook.com/theturninginstitute

Take care.

Emma Murphy

Counselor/Psychotherapist