Last month, my husband, kids and I went to the beach to get our last days of summer in. When we got there, I realized that I packed my sons’ suits and my husband’s suits but failed to pack my own. I was super disappointed-to say the least, there’s nothing better than swimming in Tomales Bay on a hot day. But I made the best of it and rolled up my cutoffs and waded in the water with my two year old. At one point, I squatted down to show him a tide pool and the back of my shorts got a little wet- I thought to myself, “Oh well, I’m already wet, I might as well jump into the water.” I took a deep breath and paused. I didn’t jump into the water, but I noticed, “wow, there is my black and white thinking just popping up again.” I have recovered from multiple disordered eating issues- but my thinking instincts still remain. My brain is still organized in that way. I didn’t react to the compulsion- I didn’t jump into the bay just because my shorts were a little wet because rationally I knew that they’d be dry in a half hour or so, but that if I jumped into the water- despite the fact that it would be super fun and satisfying for a few moments- I’d be uncomfortable in wet denim, I’d have sand stuck to me, and I’d have a long car ride home in dirty wet clothes. But I was extremely interested in the fact that so many years deep into my recovery- my thinking patterns remain the same. I was still vulnerable to polarized thinking. This is what black and white thinking (polarized thinking) is. It’s all or nothing.
Overeating is a super common binge trigger– it’s part of the cognitive distortion known as polarized thinking.
For instance- I ate two cookies with my coffee for breakfast, I might as well spend the rest of the day eating cake and cookies- I can’t eat something like a salad for lunch because I already “ruined” the day. Or I ate all my ww points for the day but then I went over a few points- I might as well binge or I don’t eat white flour or sugar, but I had a small bite of my boyfriend’s croissant. The day is ruined- Now I have to spend the day, the week, the month bingeing… or I ate two mini halloween candies, I have to spend the rest of the night testing every single candy and goodie that’s here. Or however your polarized thinking manifests for you. Bingeing because you overate is like seeing that you have one flat tire, getting out of your car and slashing the other three. It is not rational or logical.
Polarized thinking it is a process where you feel like you don’t have any choices. Had I not been able to recognize my thought patterns in that moment, I would have felt like I had to jump in the water. That I had no other choice since my shorts were already wet. This is a thinking process organized around perfection. “I have to be perfect or I’m nothing-I’m ruined.” There is no middle ground or allowance to be a normal human being who gets their shorts wet, spills coffee on themselves, or eats a bagel for breakfast. You believe that your choices are not your own. You might even feel paralyzed a lot of the time because you believe that if you cannot do it perfectly- you are afraid of doing it at all.
Now here is the thing about polarized thinking- you don’t have to let it affect your behaviors. Just because your mind becomes organized in that way doesn’t mean you have to follow your impulses down the rabbit hole. Part of mindfulness practice is slowing yourself down enough to notice your thoughts and then have the ability to change your action or reaction to your thought. Remember that thoughts are just electronic impulses, and we have 50,000- 70,000 thoughts each day. You can notice those thoughts before you react to them. You can choose the thoughts that you’re going to react to. For instance the thought, “I went out with friends tonight and I overate tortilla chips at this restaurant, I am full,” can often precede the behavior of going home by yourself and bingeing on lots of other foods. You are angry at yourself because you feel that you ate too much- but rather than sit with the fullness until it passes (like letting my shorts dry for a half hour rather than jumping into the bay with all my clothes on) you might believe that you have no other choice than to binge. But you actually do have a choice. Let yourself slow down and notice your thinking without reacting to it. If you eat a roll at dinner even though you didn’t intend to, remind yourself that eating the rest of the basket of rolls or going home and bingeing would be a lot like jumping into the bay with all your clothes on. No human being is perfect- and when you hold yourself up to that standard, you can often feel very limited by your choices and your ability to enjoy being in the world.
To deal with polarized thinking:
1. Slow down and notice your thoughts
2. Notice how your instincts want to react to those thoughts
3. Think about whether or not there is a different choice- a choice that’s more like allowing your shorts to dry and feeling comfortable again.
4. Try to implement that choice.
5. Notice how you feel the next day.
When you have black and white thinking, you believe that you have no choice and you have to take the extreme path. Recovery doesn’t mean that you will never have black and white thinking again- but it means that you will notice it more for what it is- a thought and a suggestion rather than a hardline on what you have to do.
What do you think? How are some ways that you’ve dealt with your polarized thinking?