What Do Perfectionism and Eating Disorders Have in Common? (Part 4)

perfectionism - watercolor face - brown

Imperfection makes you more human and also more intriguing. You open a door for a story to tell. – The New York Times

People who struggle with eating disorders and body image problems are often beset with self-criticism and perfectionism. Perfectionism is defined as the tendency to set extremely rigid and high standards for oneself and being displeased with anything else. A belief like “either I’m a size 4 or I’m a failure” or “If I don’t do my cycle class four times a week, I’m going to get fat” illustrates the all or nothing mentality of perfectionism.

The eating disorder patients in my practice often express an extreme and obsessive striving for perfection in weight, eating, and exercise. But, instead, perfectionism winds up fueling the eating disorder and making it worse: when you eventually get frustrated and discouraged that you cannot achieve perfection, then you might as well throw in the towel and overeat, purge, or starve with a vengeance.

In truth, perfectionism is a form of self-hatred. Although it appears on the surface to be an ambitious way of achieving your personal best, chronic self-judgment and unhappiness with yourself is a form of self-hatred. The healing antidote to perfectionism and self-hatred is to cultivate compassion for oneself. Self-compassion is the antidote to chronic dissatisfaction with one’s eating, weight, and body.

How do we cultivate self-compassion?

So, how do we achieve self-compassion if we hate our stomach or binged on chocolate chip cookies last night?

Acknowledge that you have an eating/body image disorder and that healing is a process that takes time. What is important is to continue to work on getting better and making progress on your issues. You may never get it perfect! Work on getting better rather than getting perfect.

Awareness about the reasons you have developed perfectionism. Did you get the message from your family that your triumphs were all important and nothing less was acceptable? (“You got a 90 on the test? What happened to the other ten points?”). Do you feel competitive with your siblings or friends to be the best/thinnest? Do you chronically compare yourself unfavorably with others?

Comparisons with others doom us to dissatisfaction because we compare our insides with their outsides. In other words, Polly may look pretty and perfect, but she has just thrown up or feels inadequate deep inside although she doesn’t let it show. Comparisons are the thief of happiness.

Acceptance is key to achieving more balance and less perfection. We are all human and have our good points and our not so good points. So what? If we can get the perspective that life is a journey that is often accompanied by anxiety and imperfection, we realize everyone is in the same boat.You do not have to be perfect to accept the body you have. They key is to call a truce to the adversarial relationship you have with your body and to work on appreciating the wondrous ways it does show up for you every day without your even having to ask. The book titles The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) and In Praise of Imperfection (the autobiography of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini) beautifully convey the wonderful notion that perhaps the things that make you imperfect, quirky, and unique are not to be tamed but, instead, embraced. Pursue pleasure that is uniquely you. Claim the individual idiosyncrasies that best express a positive relationship to your body and yourself. Perhaps imperfection is the new perfection!

Overcoming perfectionism is the key to a balanced recovery. No one believes that the point of a beautiful symphony is to reach the finale, the philosopher Alan Watts wrote. The whole point to enjoying music is discovered with each moment of playing and listening. “It is the same with our lives; if we are unduly absorbed in improving…we may forget altogether to live.”

Further Reading: What Do Perfectionism and Eating Disorders Have in Common (Part 1)

Further Reading: What Do Perfectionism and Eating Disorders Have in Common (Part 2)

Further Reading: What Do perfectionism and Eating Disorders Have in Common (Part 3)

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