The Intersection of Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

It’s hard to feel good about your body and appearance. From an early age you’re bombarded with messages about what the ideal body should look like. You learned that you should count calories (or cut out entire food groups), workout every day, color your hair, and get a bit of Botox and then you just might look like the airbrushed images in every women’s magazine.

Instead of feeling good about your body, you’re acutely aware of your imperfections: I’ve got a turkey neck. I’ve got acne. My belly’s flabby. I’m too short. Women are particularly critical of their bodies, but men feel it too. Most of us are never going to look like a super model or Hollywood actor. Most of these images are completely unrealistic. It’s taken Mattel over 50 years to realize that super tall, blond, hour-glass figure Barbie isn’t a reflection of most women’s bodies.

What do eating disorders have to do with perfectionism?

Do you have rigid ideas about diet and exercise? Are you extremely self critical?  Never happy with your weight or appearance? Feel like you need to be thinner no matter how “good” you are on your diet? Are you constantly comparing  yourself to others? Do you always have a weight or exercise related goal? Are you aware of every flaw in your body or appearance?

Perfectionism is the breeding ground for eating disorders and body shame. Perfectionists are extremists. They have rigid, all or nothing mind sets and they’re very hard on themselves. So, it’s no surprise that some perfectionists take diet, exercise, and body image to such an extreme that they lose sight of what’s healthy.

These perfectionist standards ultimately result in feeling like you’re not enough- not thin enough, disciplined enough, successful enough, or pretty enough. And because they’re unattainable, they have to end in failure.  “Underneath [eating disorders] is a desire to be perfect in hopes of being enough,” says Addictions Specialist Michelle Farris, LMFT.

Eating disorders can develop for a variety of reasons. On the surface they seem to be about food and body. But these are just the manifestations of the underlying lack of self-worth. The same is true of perfectionism. The striving for perfection in diet, appearance, or goal achievement is simply an attempt to gain approval (from self or others) and ultimately feel worthy.

Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

“The person suffering with an eating disorder is sent on a wild goose chase searching for perfectionism. The problem has little to do with food and the body, rather, the underlying issue is regarding self-worth. Therefore, in order to heal, the person needs to focus on realizing her worth,” says Jodie Gale, a Psychotherapist & Eating Psychology Specialist in Sydney, Australia.

The extreme behaviors that perfectionists and those with eating disorders engage in are also efforts to feel a sense of control; Attempts to manage anxiety that stems from feeling not “good enough”. Both try to manage anxiety and low self-worth with rigid control over themselves. Whether it’s restrictive eating, excessive exercising, or working 14 hour days, both groups are pushing themselves to unrealistic extremes that ultimately back fire. They aren’t sustainable.

Amanda Dutton, Counselor and Owner of Healthy Life Counseling, explains the progression of perfectionism and disordered eating: “The desire to please, to achieve, and excel drive us to a point where acts that were once seen as admirable become destructive. Exercise becomes too intense or lasts too long, or we stop striving to look healthy and start obsessing over any perceived flaw.”

If you struggle with body dissatisfaction and shame, you feel there is something inherently lacking about you that you’ve mistakenly come to believe can be solved by being perfect. You believe that by looking and being perfect, you’ll finally feel worthy, beautiful, smart, successful, or happy. You’ve created an impossible situation that condemns you to self-hatred and unhappiness because you can never achieve this idealized version of yourself.

How do you discover your worth?

Feeling worthy require you to accept your entire self. In contrast, men and women with eating disorders hate parts of themselves – the parts that eat too much sugar, that binge and purge, are too big, or don’t adhere to strict rules.

We aren’t either good or bad, success or failure, beautiful or ugly, thin or fat. People are full of shades of gray, imperfections, and contradictions. Dr. Angelica Shiels, Psy.D. adds that “Accepting anything complex, whether it is a self or a body, requires tolerating the extremes as well as all the gray areas in between. It requires awareness, compassion, acceptance, and self-soothing during even moments of so-called mistakes and imperfections.”

You can begin to feel worthy by acknowledging the different parts of yourself, accepting them without judgment, and granting yourself compassion and grace as an imperfect human being. Overcoming perfectionism, eating disorders, and body shame come when you love yourself, including your imperfections, screw-ups, and flaws.

Eating disorders can cause serious damage to the mind, body, and spirit. If you’re struggling, you aren’t alone. Shame grows when things are kept secret. Confide in someone trustworthy. Ask for help and find a qualified professional to guide you toward self-love. Chances are that no one will judge you as harshly as yourself.

 

Resources:

Help Guide (overview of key issues and treatment strategies)

National Eating Disorders Association

International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation (includes a directory of treatment professionals)

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders

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