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Control, black and white thinking, and your eating disorder

April 9, 2024

Manhattan woman smiling in a bakery holding a donut. She has overcome her black and white thinking.

Control and all-or-nothing thinking are two common cognitive patterns that play significant roles in the development and maintenance of eating disorders. They contribute to the distorted beliefs and behaviors surrounding food, body image, and self-worth that are characteristic of these disorders.

Manhattan woman standing in central park laughing at the camera. Breaking your black and white thinking can improve your relationship with food.

Many individuals with eating disorders have an intense need for Control, often stemming from various aspects of their lives, such as stress, emotions, or personal circumstances. The eating disorder serves as a way to exert control over at least one aspect of their life – their eating and body. Restricting food intake, excessive exercise, and strict dietary rules provide a false sense of control over their body’s appearance and weight. This sense of control can temporarily alleviate anxiety and provide a way to cope with life’s uncertainties.

Individuals with eating disorders also often struggle with All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking). This cognitive distortion involves seeing things in extreme, polarized terms, with no middle ground. Individuals with eating disorders often view their eating behaviors, body shape, and self-worth in black-and-white terms. They may believe that they are either completely in control of their diet or entirely out of control. For example, if they perceive themselves as having overeaten even slightly, they might feel like they’ve failed completely and resort to behaviors like binge eating or purging. This rigid thinking pattern perpetuates the cycle of extreme behaviors and negative emotions.

Brooklyn woman wearing pants, journaling in her notebook her thoughts. Breaking the negative cognition of black and white thinking is key in eating disorder recovery.

The need for control can lead to extreme dietary restrictions and meticulous calorie counting. Individuals may set strict rules for themselves, such as avoiding entire food groups or adhering to very low-calorie diets. This approach gives them a sense of control over their bodies and eating behaviors. However, it also sets them up for eventual overeating or binge eating due to the extreme deprivation they’ve imposed.

When individuals with eating disorders engage in all-or-nothing thinking, they might perceive a small deviation from their restrictive rules as a complete failure. This can trigger feelings of shame and guilt, which in turn can lead to compensatory behaviors like binge eating or purging. After such episodes, they might feel compelled to regain control by reverting to restrictive behaviors, perpetuating a cycle of extremes.

All-or-nothing thinking also affects how individuals with eating disorders perceive their bodies. They might have a distorted view of themselves – either viewing themselves as overweight or obese (despite being underweight) or believing that their self-worth is directly tied to their body size. This distorted perception drives further attempts to control their body through extreme behaviors.

Brooklyn woman in therapy learning how to control her black and white thinking in eating disorder recovery.

Addressing these cognitive patterns is a crucial aspect of eating disorder treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common therapeutic approach that helps individuals recognize and challenge these distorted thoughts. Through CBT, individuals learn to identify triggers for their all-or-nothing thinking and develop healthier ways of coping with stress and emotions. They also work on gradually relinquishing the need for excessive control over their eating habits and body image.

Ultimately, understanding the role of control and all-or-nothing thinking in eating disorders highlights the importance of comprehensive treatment that addresses both the psychological and physiological aspects of the disorder. It’s essential for individuals to learn healthier ways of coping, develop a balanced relationship with food and their bodies, and build a more flexible and resilient mindset.


At Manhattan Wellness, we understand that your relationship with food can be complicated. With all the messages and images we are bombarded with on social media, it can be difficult to navigate a positive relationship with food.  That’s why our female therapists want to support you in tackling your eating disorder with compassion and care. Let us help you create an empowering narrative that will benefit all aspects of your life. If you are interested in beginning counseling for women:

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Our therapists understand that life in New York City is not always easy, and that other issues can come up along the way. To better support you, we offer a variety of services to cater to your individual needs. The therapy services we offer are Therapy for Self Esteem, Anxiety Treatment, and therapy for dating and relationship issues. As well as therapy for college students, support for maternal mental health, body image therapy, and so much more. Are you feel like you’re not living the life you want and need to make changes? Let’s talk about it.

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