There are styles of thinking that are commonly related to anxiety and unhappiness. One patterned way of thinking that is identified by therapists who work with cognitions is the all-or-nothing style. It is often part of the negative body-image experience. This way of thinking can lead to a lot of unnecessary distress, but it is also a symptom of feeling overwhelmed. When the mind is faced with too much to deal with, a tactic it uses to conserve energy is to reduce its interpretation of experiences to simple categories: black or white, all or nothing, all bad or all good. In this effort to simplify and manage complex experiences, the mind protects itself in a short-term gain, long-term pain manner. Because life experiences can indeed be complex, we need to be able to tolerate the discomfort of staying open-minded as much as possible. The more we can withstand the discomfort, the more readily we can grow into new understandings, accommodating the complexity into our frame of thinking. This impacts relationships to self and others.
People with negative body image are often throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just like people who complain of low self-esteem, they make global and categorical assessments of their worth. They are not using a logical stance to assess their strengths and areas of challenge. Their minds are locked into an all-good versus all-bad perspective. Instead of thinking of the multitude of pleasures and purposes of the body and of the complexity of the concept of attraction, they decide that they, as a whole, are unappealing. People with extremely poor body image rarely actually look at their whole selves. When they look in the mirror, they visually dissect their image into small parts which they then taint with a negative emotion. Negative feelings overall can impact what we think we are seeing. Perception is influenced by mind and emotion states. What we see can be a trick. If one who is already stressed or sad then looks only at one aspect or one piece of their physical body, the scene is ripe for negative body image. This becomes a very unhealthy habit that perpetuates itself—getting stressed and then over-focusing on one aspect of the body that brings about more negative feelings. This person may believe he or she can control that one area of the body. This sends people into very unpleasant experiences with exercising.
Categorical thinking about the body perpetuates unhealthy attitudes about wellness overall and sabotages efforts to stay fit. Instead of going to work out or enjoy sport or physical activity, the person with negative body image will sometimes resentfully engage in excessive exercise to try to manage the hated parts of the body. This usually fails, as spot-training is often a futile endeavour. Since they cannot reach their all-or-nothing goals, they often become demotivated to work out. A healthy and balanced approach to being fit in mind and body is not about spot-training or sculpting the body. A sustainable and healthy approach is one that allows a person to accept the natural ebb and flow of energy and motivation. Cherishing life, one heads to physical activity with joy, keeping in mind the goal of health, wellness, and balance itself. Self-enhancement through dedication to feeling good keeps a body well. This kind of accepting attitude leads to overall better health and fitness, which contributes greatly to relaxation and strengthened capacity to deal with emotion and stressful challenges. Ultimately, respecting the body and the whole self, rather than trying to conquer and control it, helps to change stubborn all-or-nothing attitudes. One must humbly surrender to the emotionally provoking complexity of being human, honoring and respecting strengths and vulnerabilities in self and others. After all, life would be very boring if it was truly black and white.
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