How I learned (and am still learning) to overcome all-or-nothing thinking

by | May 13, 2022 | Last updated May 13, 2022

In my three decades of being alive, I’ve learned a lot about myself: I do better when I have structure and a set schedule, it takes me about two hours to get fully ready (I have an intense skincare routine!), and I’m definitely someone who “sweats the small stuff.” I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember, and when I’m feeling stressed out, I tend to throw my hands up and abandon my routine and healthy habits. Even though I thrive on structure, I also easily veer off of my productive schedule whenever life throws me a curveball, be it a change in plans or getting sick.

For years, I would take that as a sign to self-soothe with not-so-healthy habits: if I was sick, that gave me license to eat nothing but comfort foods, nary a vegetable in sight. If I started the day with a chocolate croissant, then I would consider the day “ruined” and continue making more calorie-dense food choices like pizza for lunch and chicken wings and fries for dinner. If I slept through a workout class, I would feel guilty and tell myself I had missed my shot at physical activity that day, and I wouldn’t make an effort to get any activity in.

This way of thinking led to a vicious and less-than-healthy cycle. If I was particularly stressed out, I would turn to wine or potato chips (or both) to feel better, usually chased with a dose of unnecessary online shopping (exacerbated by the wine buzz.) I would feel guilty and tell myself I would be “better” tomorrow. Then I would put myself on a strict schedule of set workouts and nutritious home-cooked meals, only to beat myself up if I veered off this plan, and the cycle would continue. 

As you might imagine, this was not a healthy, productive, or sustainable way to live. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty, beating myself up, trying to overcompensate, and not giving myself grace when I engaged in a habit I considered “bad” or “unhealthy.”

Does this sound familiar? This form of all-or-nothing thinking is all too common, and it’s a type of thought distortion we address in the Noom curriculum. Even labeling food or habits as “bad” or “off-limits” is a form of all-or-nothing thinking. In reality, there’s no such thing as a “bad” food, unless it’s laced with arsenic or you are allergic to it. And while hitting the gym at 6:30 in the morning will probably give you a boost of energy and moving your body is beneficial, you aren’t a “failure” if you skip your workout. 

At Noom, we encourage people to remove or change the label: rather than “a chocolate croissant ruined my day,” think “I enjoyed my chocolate croissant for breakfast, and I will eat more green foods for lunch.” This is one way to combat all-or-nothing thinking by identifying foods as simply foods (not “good” or “bad”), and moving on with your day. Getting stuck in cycles of restricting and then overindulging (then feeling guilty and repeating the cycle) is not only mentally and emotionally draining, it’s also not a sustainable way to live.

Although I’ve made tons of progress in my all-or-nothing thinking, I know these thoughts and behaviors don’t disappear overnight. For me, I started by practicing mindfulness and taking a moment to check in with myself to assess where I was emotionally. 

Recently, when I got a cold just two weeks after recovering from Covid, I was ready to throw my hands up and eat calorie-dense comfort foods for every meal. And while I did enjoy takeout ramen and hot toddies, I also made sure to make my veggie- and protein-packed smoothie most mornings because that’s what a balanced relationship with food looks like for me. Before each meal, I practice mindfulness by asking myself: do I really want this? How will I feel after I eat this? 

When I first got sick, I knew making my smoothie for breakfast would give me energy and help me get back into a routine that makes me feel good. But one morning, I was craving a chocolate croissant and knew my smoothie wouldn’t be as satisfying to me in the moment. So I got my croissant and thoroughly enjoyed it. Leaning in to these mindfulness techniques is one way I am able to find balance in my food choices.

As we discuss often at Noom, motivation isn’t constant. We go through what we call slips and surges (or dips and peaks of motivation). When my motivation is surging, I hit the gym every morning before work, come back and make my smoothie, drink a lot of water, assemble a healthy lunch, cook a fresh dinner every night, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. On the other hand, when my motivation is dwindling, I tend to skip my workouts, order a lot of takeout, and not weigh in or track my food. This is a normal part of any healthy living or weight loss journey. 

The difference now is that I can identify when I’m experiencing a slip, and check in with myself to prevent a full spiral of less-healthy behaviors, such as not grocery shopping for weeks at a time or turning to diet soda and Prosecco instead of water. Giving myself grace has allowed me to recognize when I’m in a slip, identify it as such, and make a concrete plan for how I can make a different choice at the next meal, the next day, or even in a couple days rather than feeling guilty about making an “unhealthy” choice and beating myself up for it. I’ve learned that feeling guilty or shaming myself only leads to making more unhealthy choices and feeling bad about myself in the process.

If you struggle with all-or-nothing thinking, I know it’s a difficult cycle to break out of. Start by taking a step back and learning to be patient with yourself—changing your thought distortions doesn’t happen overnight. The key is to check in with yourself and ask: how will this decision make me feel? What can I do with my next decision to feel better?

Also, try to avoid putting labels on foods, behaviors, or yourself when you experience a setback. Remember: having a piece of cake after dinner won’t “ruin” your diet; rather, acknowledge that your sister’s birthday cake was delicious and you enjoyed eating it with loved ones. 

If you’re looking for more support in changing these types of thought patterns, Noom’s science-backed curriculum and tools can help you shift your mindset and maintain healthier eating habits long-term.