A Hidden Tendency that Can Color Our Healthy Choices

There are definitely some traps that we can fall into when trying to improve our eating and exercise habits.  How many of us have started out with great ideas about eating better and exercising more, only to falter and inadvertently end up abandoning the effort? 

In response to this, we often hear that it is a good idea to “start small.”  That way, whatever we are trying to do is less daunting, and theoretically can easily fit into our day.  But even with small changes, we can slip into something that can get us off track.

That something is black and white thinking.  Let me explain.  How often do people choose a precise goal, only to abandon it if it is not met?

Here’s an example:  You decide to follow a diet plan that calls for eliminating salty snacks.  You love salty snacks, and eat them most days.  You figure that it is one of your downfalls, and so it would be a good idea to give up those salty snacks.  Cold turkey seems like the way to go.  You even go so far as to substitute carrots or apples instead.  Then one day stress hits.  You are tired, and cranky.  You don’t feel like preparing carrots or apples, or even eating them.  So, you go for some Fritos from a nearby convenience store. 

What follows is a slide into snack food oblivion.  You feel that you have failed in your resolve.  It must be impossible for you, so you might as well go back to enjoying your salty snacks.  You just don’t have the self-control that it takes.  You put the blame on yourself.

How did we get here? 

This is such a common scenario that we may not even recognize it in ourselves or others. 

This type of thinking is fostered by many forces around us.  To make this easy to identify, here’s a list of potential offenders:

Marketing.  Often a product or piece of exercise equipment is touted as the “one right thing.”  Just follow this plan and your troubles will be over. On top of that, fitness models are there to show us that perfection is obtainable. 

Doctor’s orders.  Just take this pill.  Just lose 20 pounds.  Just stop using butter.

Exercise recommendations.  Many organizations are pushing these same guidelines:  Do cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week, and do strength training at least twice a week.  On another note, often if we are engaged in physical therapy, we are supposed to do several exercises at home, once or twice a day.  In both cases, sometimes the recommended exercise takes more time than we have. 

How we learn in school.  Often we are compared to others through test scores, grading, ability to be good at sports, and so on.  If we don’t measure up, we can conclude things like “I’m just not good at math,” or “I hate gym class.”  This can easily lead to giving up in those areas. 

Technology.  Apps and reminders can become a nuisance.  They don’t understand our daily lives. Either you have done your exercise for the day or you haven’t.  Once you get off track, it’s easy to let go of what you were intending to do.   

There are several things going on here. 

As mentioned above, once you get off track, the obvious conclusion is that you just don’t have the self-control to make the change.

This provides an excuse not to persist.

Being stuck in this framework may lead you to figure that you will get it right next time.  Maybe you will try that same change again, or try a different one.

There is no “Plan B.”  There are no options to do it another way, or make some sort of compromise. 

What can we do about this? 

  1. Accept that none of us is perfect.  Nobody is at the top of their game every day.  And life is messy.  Accept that you are not “falling short,” but just fluctuating, like everybody else.  An important way to approach a new effort is to make a plan for when you don’t get it right.  Anticipate that you will mess up. In the case of salty snacks, get back to substituting something else for them on most days. 
  2. Name the problem.  Awareness is key.  You can even write down one black and white thought daily and then brainstorm some alternatives.  Instead of feeling that you have failed, replace that with the realization that you can always learn something new, find strategies, and seek input from others to help you. 
  3. Examine the reasons for the “failure.”  For example:  You skipped the gym last week.  Does that mean you are unmotivated and always will be?  Instead, have a look at the reasons that happened.  If the gym is too far away, find another way to get some exercise.  If it seems to take up too much time, break your exercise down in to smaller events.  Talk to someone who can help you figure out a way to succeed at your goal of getting more exercise. 

Often the end result of black and white thinking is lack of long-term success.  Black and white thinking can seem totally natural until some of the difficulties and lack of results are pointed out.  With awareness and some positive thinking, there can be a change to a more productive and hopeful approach. 


© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: pixinoo / iStock

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