Reading an article about why people are attracted to rigid ideologies, I got to thinking about dieting as a telling example. What follows are my musings on the subject which may help you understand and change your way of thinking about food. I have no science to back up my ideas, but ask you to consider them as food for thought.

In a fascinating article, “Why they join” by Mark Potok (Intelligence Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2014, issue 153, p.65), about the attraction of extremist groups, Pete Simi, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, identified personality traits which make people more likely to join these groups. He says, “In terms of personality, I wouldn’t say there is one type of personality, but I would say there are certain characteristics of thinking that make a person more prone or susceptible. For instance, low tolerance for ambiguity seems to cut across most if not all extremist ideologies; this goes along with a certain type of concrete thinking where a person wants to categorize things as ‘black and white’ rather than deal with so-called ‘gray’ areas. At the most fundamental level that’s what most of these movements are all really based on—oversimplifying a highly complicated world—and that’s a powerful thing to offer people, especially those who feel lost or are looking for some easy answers.”

Now, before you get up in arms thinking that I’m saying that you’re likely to become a racial or religious extremist, let me assure you that I’m not. Most disregulated eaters try hard (to a fault) to be kind, caring and open-minded. But, when you read the description of wanting to oversimplify the world and wishing to categorize it into “black and white,” doesn’t that sound a whole lot like your typical disregulated eater who yearns for certainty that she’s eating right, who sees eating and weight in “good and bad” terms, who feels lost and confused around food, and is mindlessly drawn to easy answers? Take a moment to consider whether the description fits you and another moment to think about how you feel about this fact. Do you value and benefit from these qualities in yourself or do you wish to become more flexible and feel better about uncertainty?

The way to change your thinking is to be aware of it. Notice when you’re thinking in extremes, and identify a gray area or middle ground. Observe when you get agitated by confusion or uncertainty, and allow yourself to relax into ambiguity and ambivalence. Stop looking for simplistic answers, for the world to be simple, and life to be easy. Accept life’s complexities and learn to be more comfortable with them—and yourself.