female physique coach

Posted 1 year ago

Black and white thinking

Have you heard of this expression? Do you ever feel like this is you?

“All or nothing” or black and white thinking styles are incredibly common, especially when it comes to the fitness world. With this thinking, you’re either “making progress or you’re not”, “ticking the boxes or not”, “eating 100% clean or ordering a takeaway”, “smashing the gym 6x a week or not going at all”. Do you see where I’m going with this?

In essence, black and white thinking means that there is no in between in life, there’s no middle ground nor any shades of grey. And in case it wasn’t obvious already, this type of thinking pattern can be quite unhelpful when it comes to achieving your health, fitness, and physique goals, irrespective of what those may look like for you.

This is something I frequently see in clients too, especially when we first start working together – they may feel like because they have a plan and program in place now, there is this expectation that they need to hit the nail on the head from the get-go, and have perfect weeks EVERY week, when in truth, this is not realistic. Learning how to move away from the black and white extremes and getting comfortable with the grey space is what allows most people to achieve the results they’ve achieved. Why? Because if you can be 80% consistent 100% of the time you are far more likely to succeed (and enjoy the process!) than if you try to be 100% and only manage that 40% of the time. It’s worth noting that this degree of flexibility does reduce a little when you’re prepping for a show, for example, but for 90% of us it holds true. The grey space is where the magic happens.

I wouldn’t be writing this article if living in the grey space was easy or straightforward though, so let’s break it down: how can we move away from black and white thinking, so that our thought patterns can support our journey and our results?

Step 1 – recognise what events “activate” that thinking style

When it comes to what I see with clients, most of the time it’s a small slip in routine. Whether they find themselves unable to meal prep and having to get food on the go, or suddenly something comes up with work and they cannot make the gym that day, these are the types of events that will “activate” the black and white thinking mode. This triggers them to then feel frustrated and dissatisfied with themselves, because they blame themselves for events they couldn’t control; and of course, the dissatisfaction and frustration just breeds more of that feeling, so it can end up spiralling out of control.

Step 2 – recognise what beliefs get louder with the trigger

“Well, I’ve had to get a Tesco chicken salad meal deal for lunch which isn’t on my plan, so I might as well fuck off the diet for the rest of today”. Sound familiar? And how often does this then lead to a bad week? Or, “I won’t have time to do my whole workout today at the gym because I’ve had to stay at work a bit later, I’ll just sack it off”. We’ve all experienced these, or heard someone say these out loud too, so the next step for moving into the grey space is to understand what thoughts you’re saying to yourself when things wobble a little. What do you find the most distressing or frustrating thought to be? Rate how much you believe it from 0-100, and keep reading on.

Step 3 – assess the consequences

Not just the consequences of the actions you end up taking as a result of these extreme thought patterns, but more so the impact it ends up having on your own mental wellbeing. How do you feel after you engage in these thought patters, after you tell yourself that all the progress is ruined, and you’ll never be good enough? How intensely are these consequences affecting you? What do you tend to do in response to those feelings (i.e., does it breed more negativity and keep the cycle going? For example, does one Tesco meal deal lead to a takeaway, lead to a whole week of not tracking calories?). Understanding the long-term impact of these thought patterns is key to helping you move through them.

Step 4 – assess the factual evidence for and against your black and white thought/belief

What I mean by this is, once you’ve dissected exactly what you believe – for example, “if my diet isn’t 100% on point all the time, it’s not even worth trying” – sit down and imagine yourself in court. How well would this statement hold up against evidence? Can you think of a time that your diet wasn’t on the money 100% of the time yet you still made progress? What evidence supports this claim that your mind is telling you? From there, you can start to dispute those thoughts too. You can ask yourself questions such as:

  • What other ways are there of viewing this situation?
  • If I was not feeling frustrated, would I view this situation differently?
  • Realistically, what is the likelihood of [X] happening if [Y] has occurred?
  • How might someone else view the situation?
  • Does it really help me to think this way?

Step 5 – End result

Of course, these questions are designed to prompt you to think more openly about the event and move into the grey space. In reality, spending 1h at the gym and supersetting your workout won’t make a difference to your long term progress; equally, just missing one session that week won’t be the end of the world, if you can keep yourself going on the other days. Similarly, having one offplan meal won’t make a difference to your long-term progress – only if that one meal gets in the way and leads you to think that it’s all or nothing, and so now there’s no point in tracking calories till Monday again because you’ve fucked it anyway.

Hopefully then, after having a look at the evidence for and against those thoughts and having considered some of the questions above, you can come to a more balanced or “grey space” thought. Like I mentioned above, you’ll realise that it’s not all or nothing, and that ultimately, being able to show up consistently enough for long enough is what will enable you to achieve your goals. This applies to whether you’re in a dieting phase, trying to gain weight, getting into a new routine, or anything at all in life that causes you distress.

If black and white thinking patterns keep getting in the way of your results and you’re looking for a coach who understands how to unpack them and embed this process into the coaching journey, look no further and enquire about working with me today.

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS