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Our brains developed to quickly assess “good” from “bad” people, that is, those that we expect will be friendly to and not harm us from those we fear will be hostile and hurt us. Back when the first humans came on the scene, this was a useful brain feature to help us assess and monitor our relationships with others. But now it oversimplifies relationships and encourages all/nothing thinking which actually works to deter healthy relationships and causes unnecessary stress and reactive unwanted eating.
An example of how wildly complicated humans are can be seen in a February news story of a man who bought $540 worth of cookies so that two Girl Scouts could come in from cold weather and was “later arrest on federal drug charges, including conspiracy to manufacture and distribute heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl.” (“Man who went viral for buying $540 of Girl Scout cookies arrested in DEA drug bust” by Andrea Diaz and Amanda Jackson, CNN online, 2/27/19, https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/27/us/man-behind-viral-girl-scout-cookie-photo-arrested-trnd/index.html, accessed 2/28/19)
What to make of this man—is he an angel or a devil? A good Samaritan or a danger to society? A hero or a criminal? Our minds want to categorize him into one kind of person or the other, but the fact is that he is just as complex and full of contradictions as many of us (well, maybe a little more than most)—a little of this and a little of that.
Many dysregulated eaters have all-or-nothing thinking, especially with those close to them (spouses, partners, friends, relatives, co-workers, children) and have expectations that someone will be all “good” or all “bad.” They don’t know what to make of a parent who yells and screams at them most of the time, then goes all out to care for them when they’re ill. Or what to make of a partner who treats them wonderfully when he’s sober but is rude and cruel when he drinks.
Not knowing which behavior to attend to, they want to categorize themselves and others as angels or devils when humans are neither. Accepting that people can exhibit extremely altruistic as well as base behavior is part of being mentally healthy. The goal in life is not to be good or, said another way, to avoid being bad. This is how we all thought in childhood and it served us well back then in order to simplify what to do. This is not part of emotionally healthy adult thinking which is far more discerning and nuanced. I’m not suggesting that because someone does one nice thing for us, we should accept their frequent sub-par behavior. This pattern will undoubtedly hurt us. I am suggesting that we view ourselves and others with more flexibility and accept and expect that people are way more complicated that we’d like to believe.
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