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When I work with clients who are struggling, I often hear things like, “I already blew it by eating a candy bar before lunch, so I just ate whatever I wanted for the rest of the day”.

This is an example of behavior based on polarized (“black and white”) thinking – also known as “all or nothing” thinking – seeing everything at the extremes, with no gray zone: “I succeeded or I failed”, “I won or I lost”, “If my day wasn’t great then it was awful”, “If I didn’t achieve perfection then I completely blew it”. This kind of thinking is very common. Does it sound familiar to you?

Would you ever say to yourself: “I got a bad grade and so I might as well quit the program right now”, or “My evaluation was less than stellar and so I might as well quit the job right now”, or “I had a fight with my significant other and so I might as well just leave now”?

I don’t think so! Do you see how irrational these kinds of thoughts are? Would you ever say these kinds of things to a dear friend or loved one?

Again, I don’t think so, and yet we often think in an all-or-nothing way when it comes to taking care of ourselves: “I don’t have time to go to a gym and so I can’t start exercising at this point in my life”, or “I don’t have time to prepare healthy meals and so there’s nothing I can do about my weight right now”, or “Healthy food is too expensive and so there’s nothing I can change about how I eat at this point in my life”.

How to identify all-or-nothing thinking:

Do your thoughts contain any of these words: always, never, perfect, impossible, ruined, disastrous, failure, catastrophe…?

The remedy?

1. Exchange rigid thinking for flexible thinking

Ask yourself these questions:

– Can I be basically an intelligent person and still make a bad choice? (Of course, we all do at times!)

– Can I love someone and still get upset with them sometimes? (Yes, it happens all the time!)

– Can someone love me but sometimes hurt my feelings? (Absolutely!)

– Can some parts of a situation or event (such as a social engagement or vacation) be unpleasant and other parts of it be pleasant? (This is pretty common, right?)

Reminding yourself of these kinds of truths will allow you to become less rigid and more flexible in your thinking.

2. Think in shades of grey

Instead of thinking about a situation in an either-or way, evaluate things on a scale of 0-100. Example: when a goal is not fully realized, think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success, on a scale of 0-100.


“I stayed on my healthy meal plan all day, and even managed to exercise, but I ate a piece of candy that I hadn’t intended to eat. I was 97% successful with my healthy lifestyle goals today”.

3. Use the Double Standard Method

Another alternative to black and white thinking is to talk to ourselves in the same encouraging way that we would talk with a friend or loved one in a similar situation.


Instead of telling yourself, “I blew it by eating a candy bar half way through the morning, and so I might as well ditch my healthy meal plan for the rest of the day”, you’d tell yourself, “I don’t have to do that, although I could certainly make that choice. One candy bar doesn’t have to sabotage my choices for the rest of the day. Every moment brings the opportunity for a new start. I can do this and I’m worth it! I deserve good nutrition and good health!”

Share your thoughts about polarized thinking with me and other readers by commenting on this post.

To learn more about effective weight management strategies, join my next weight management class, The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management. For details, visit

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With your continued health in mind,

Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.

Director, Institute for Lifelong Weight Management

Creator, The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management

The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh® is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.