The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Eating Disorders and the “All-or-Nothing” Trap

There are several types of cognitive distortions frequently experienced by individuals who struggle with eating disorders. These negative thought patterns are often longstanding and can play an integral role in maintaining depressive thoughts, anxiety, low self-esteem and reliance on eating disorder symptoms.  One of the primary cognitive distortions identified by individuals who struggle with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder is often referred to as “all-or-nothing” thinking.  Also called “black-and-white” thinking, this thought pattern is akin to the belief that “If I can’t do it perfectly, I might as well not do it at all.”

In the same way that all-or-nothing thoughts can perpetuate harmful eating disorder behaviors (ex: periods of severe restricting followed by frequent binging) , they can also sabotage efforts at recovery.  In this clip, recovery advocate Johanna Kandel talks about how all-or-nothing thoughts crept into her nutrition appointment…

Many individuals can probably relate to this experience in therapy where it becomes difficult/impossible to recover perfectly and immediately.  Setting insurmountable goals (i.e. perfection) makes it really easy to feel like you failed even when, by all other accounts, you are actually making progress.  This often leads to  someone feeling completely defeated and makes it easy to do a u-turn back towards the symptoms, isolation and secrecy that allow the eating disorder to spiral out of control.

For others, all-or-nothing thoughts may be an initial barrier to seeking treatment.  Its not unusual for individuals to hold off on making that first appointment until they are absolutely, positively, completely 100% ready to get well. Sound familiar?  As Johanna discusses in this clip, very few people are ever really going to be 100% ready for recovery but the good news is that you don’t have to be…

Identifying all-or-nothing thoughts that are impacting you and your recovery is an important step towards change.  Once you identify the cognitive distortions, you can begin to challenge them during therapy sessions, thought logs, journaling, and reality-testing.  If you aren’t sure where to start you can use the simple questions listed in this previous post to test validity of any suspected all-or-nothing thoughts. When you start exploring your negative thoughts you might be surprised at how many of them simply don’t stand up to the test.  Once you free yourself to think outside of the automatic negative thoughts you will learn, as Johanna did, that you are not an exception;  you CAN recover and you DESERVE to get better.

How did you overcome all-or-nothing thinking?  What role did it play in your eating disorder?  Join the discussion on CED’s Facebook page or leave a comment below.

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This was the third of several recovery blogs inspired by the February 2011 presentation by Johanna Kandel at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Follow CED on  Facebook to stay tuned as we continue to post additional recovery-focused blogs and video clips.  Johanna shares more about her own recovery journey in her highly influential book, Life Beyond Your Eating Disorder,  and continues to support others through her role as the Executive Director of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, a non-profit organization based in Florida. You can learn more about Johanna and her incredible book in these previous blogs as well:

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