An All or Nothing Thinking Refresher for You

all or nothing thinkingThis week I feel compelled to expand a bit on a key piece from last week’s article on Stopping the Triggers. I want to further explore how your training in all-or-nothing thinking makes the process of complete recovery harder than it needs to be. And that, until you learn to perceive yourself and your world in a more balanced, adult way, your need for food and body focus to cope with life will remain. As I mentioned last week, it is the child’s perspective on the world that thinks in all-or-nothing, black or white, good or bad terms, and is full of absolutes. The extent to which you engage in the need to label things that way or see yourself or others in absolutes is a direct indicator of how much unhealed trauma you have in you. No exceptions. All-or-nothing thinking has been your primary coping strategy to try and make sense of and feel safe in a world that, historically, was very unpredictable and unsafe for you at key times in your life. The adult brain is open to new information, even if it flies in the face of what we previously believed because we’re not attached to being right for our sense of safety or validation. When we’re in our adult brain, we have the space within ourselves to seek to understand the motivations and intentions of ourselves and others, and as such, have the very profound and grounding experience of seeing for ourselves that everyone really is always doing their best; that nothing others do is really about us being bad or wrong or unlovable but is really only their best attempt to get their needs met based on their current level of awareness and skills. The adult brain is accessible to you all the time, anytime, and you will never ever use food to cope when you’re in it! Guaranteed! So if you’re using any of your food coping strategies (restriction, overeating, purging, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating – or however you conceptualize your relationship with food), you know for a fact you’re stuck in your instinctive all-or-nothing thinking brain and not in your rational, big-picture-thinking brain. Just reminding yourself of that fact means that you’ve just shifted from the child brain to your adult brain and now you’re in a much better position to use your tools and to unhook yourself from whatever has just happened in your mind, or in reality, to trigger you to feel anxious and to need to numb out with food and body focus. Just as an adult is typically more capable and powerful than a child, so is your adult brain infinitely more capable and powerful than your child mind. The irony and frustration of this process is that we need to be in our adult, rational brain in order to see things differently and respond in new ways with our new tools, but right now (if you’re early in this process) the truth is, that whenever you start to feel the slightest bit stressed, you get overwhelmed and your instinctive, all-or-nothing (fight or flight) brain kicks in and tells you how bad things are going to go and, just for good measure, what’s wrong with you that put you in this situation in the first place. So, at the time you need it the most, the adult, rational you is nowhere to be found, and you’re left, unconsciously, with the old brain that is the root of the problem in the first place!! Ugh!!! That’s why having someone outside of yourself (like us at Cedric) who knows what to look for and how to help you to see when you’ve just been hooked by that old brain is so helpful and makes this process go so much faster. If you want to experiment with this on your own a little bit, try this: Commit to yourself that anytime you realize (at whatever point you realize it) that you’re using food to cope (thinking about or actually eating when you’re not hungry, not allowing yourself to eat when you are hungry when you know you need nourishment, or eating more than you’re hungry for), you’re going to stop for a moment, and acknowledge to yourself that you are using food to cope, and that means you’re in all-or-nothing thinking – no exceptions – and then ask yourself what just happened that might have triggered you to feel unsafe or anxious. By taking these simple steps you are kicking yourself out of the old all-or-nothing brain and into your rational adult self where things are much more manageable and clear. Thus you’re now in a position to identify whether there even was a real problem or whether you were just thinking of something from your past or worried about a potential future event, and you can take action promptly, if action needs to be taken, which means problems don’t grow and we feel more and more confident and solid in ourselves every day. This translates directly into not needing to binge or purge or restrict in any way to deal with stress or to feel good about yourself and your place in the world. Then you are free to just eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, everything in moderation, no guilt, no muss, no fuss and lots of fun!! And if you experiment with this and have success (which you will), and then find that in moments or hours, the urge to use food to cope returns, don’t make the all-or-nothing assumption that that means you can’t be successful or you can’t cope or you did it wrong etc., etc. That is untrue and will just shut you down. Instead, if you’ve brought yourself into your adult, rational brain, felt the release of old all-or-nothing thinking and then feel it coming back again, all that means is that a new need or all-or-nothing thought has arisen. Given you’ve been living, almost exclusively, in that old brain for years, it makes sense that one go-round of adult thinking isn’t going to stop the old default setting entirely. If you can just keep coming back to the association between you feeling anxious or using food to cope and you being in your all-or-nothing brain, the process becomes easy, and very quickly, your default becomes your balanced, open mind and not your closed, irrational one. If you’re feeling frustrated or annoyed with your behaviour (ie. you just binged), it only means you don’t understand why you did it and what was really going on to trigger you to feel so overwhelmed that you thought binging was the only solution that would help in any way. There is always a reason why you use food to cope (or think about it). It’s never ever that you’re weak, lazy or lacking willpower or the ability to care for yourself. It’s that you have needs in some areas of your life that aren’t being met (or that your all-or-nothing brain has told you won’t be met) and you’re feeling sad and scared and overwhelmed by that. The adult brain can help you out of that pickle quickly and usually very easily. An analogy I shared with a client recently that I think illustrates this point clearly is this: Let’s say I’ve just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. He cries for a bit from the experience of birth and the barrage of new sensations. I feed him and hold him, change his nappy, and put him down for a wee nap. He wakes up crying even more intensely than before. If I were to apply my all-or-nothing thinking brain to my parenting in the way people who use food to cope apply it to their behaviour around food, my thoughts would be something like this: Why the hell is he crying again?! What more can he need?! I just fed and changed him an hour ago for Pete’s sake. He shouldn’t have any more needs! And/or I totally suck as a parent or I would have been able to meet his need the first time so perfectly that it should never ever have arisen again. I should just give up, forget about parenting and live the rest of my life alone. Umm….well….not quite. Right? It’s clear in this analogy, that just because we successfully met a need for the baby that doesn’t mean the little charmer won’t have more and more needs – especially as he develops. Well, you know where this is going! Just because you effectively meet your need at some point (whatever it might be) and your need for food to cope diminishes in that moment, does not mean the same need or a different need won’t arise again. Your all-or-nothing Drill Sgt. within wants you to believe that you can’t succeed because he’s scared of change and fears you’ll be hurt. Your adult, rational brain, knows without you saying anything, that you can handle “it” – even if you’re scared or uncertain. It doesn’t operate on all-or-nothing. It stays in reality and takes things as they come. Your baby within has needs. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong, it just is. Your anxiety/stress level and your use of food to cope are simply signals from within that you have needs that aren’t being met. Your adult brain can handle it. Your all-or-nothing brain can’t. If you’re reaching for food or about to purge, your child brain is running the show. Remind yourself of that in the moment and you’ll see how quickly you can see yourself and the world more clearly and rationally and thus make a different choice for yourself in that moment and beyond. Have a fabulous week and take good care of that baby!! Love, The CEDRIC Centre - Michelle Morand Michelle Whether you prefer one-on-one counselling (in-person, by phone, or email), our intensive and transformative workshops, the self-help approach, with the book, or our Food is Not the Problem Online Membership Program, take action today to have a stress-free relationship with food. Sign up for our free newsletter today (see the left top side of your screen). Newsletter subscribers receive exclusive product discounts and are first in line to get on all the latest new at CEDRIC. © Michelle Morand, 2010

Posted in: 2010, CEDRIC Centre, newsletter

Leave a Comment (2) ↓


  1. "Anna" August 7, 2010

    I found this article so very helpful in understanding “all or nothing thinking” as it related to dealing with my anxiety, which of course drives my disordered eating. I’m over 50 and I definitely need to grow up and start thinking like an adult. I use to say “all or nothing thinking”- that’s just me. Putting it the way you did really makes me motivated to take up the challenge and aggressively work on my thinking patterns. Thank you once again for your brilliant insights!! Understanding has made my load lighter!

  2. Suzanne August 9, 2010

    Oh, Michelle, what a breath of fresh, enlightening, rejuvenating and calming air your articles always are! I’m on family holidays right now, rarely able to access my site on the Cedric online program, and often prey to that insidious all or nothing thinking I often want to believe I’ve licked forever.

    Luckily, I just had ten minutes of computer access and was able to read this article. It has inspired me to see clearly a very positive and happy realization: for so long, I have exercised my old child’s brain with believing my all or nothing stories; now, I have to exercise my new, adult, fun, smart, capable, powerful brain as much as possible to get it in shape for total recovery. And ironically, I have to do that with the old all or nothing stories too! So, I’m working on seeing every old story as a WELCOME contributor to my new brain exercise program (I KNOW – I’m finally getting it!). Your baby crying analogy was absolutely crystal clear to me. When my children were babies, I didn’t feel upset when they cried. For once in my life, I listened to my authentic self and welcomed their crying as their only way of expressing their needs to me. In fact, I was worried when they went too long without crying!

    So, I’m going to listen more carefully for my “crying,” that all or nothing voice that’s telling me, “Time to exercise that new brain, girl!” Yay! Big hugs of love and gratitude to you.


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