Three Pointers for Pushing Back Perfectionism in Eating Disorder Recovery

Feel like you aren’t good enough? Always comparing yourself to others? Constantly cataloguing your faults and feeling like a failure? It sounds like you are struggling with perfectionism. It can be so challenging to fall into the “compare and despair” pit when you are in San Diego and there is such an emphasis on perfect looks and perfect achievement, materialistically or otherwise. Even elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world, perfectionism is a trait that can be common in people suffering from eating disorders.

As most eating disorder researchers and experts will say, eating disorders are brain disorders. When compared to brains of people without eating disorders, people with eating disorders have areas of their brains that don’t function as efficiently or effectively. What that means is that if you have an eating disorder, it’s not your fault. It’s not about willpower or about sucking it up to “just eat” or “just stop eating.” It’s about needing to get help to change how your brain works. Struggling with perfectionism AND an eating disorder can lead to (a) feeling like you have to be perfect, so you engage in eating disorder behaviors to try to be perfect, or (b) feeling disappointed or ashamed that you’re not perfect, so you you engage in eating disorder behaviors to counteract these emotions. Either way, perfectionism can be a challenge to recovery.

Many people with eating disorders have a personality characteristic of perfectionism. I believe that perfectionism is a genetic trait that tends to run in families. If you struggle with it, just ask your siblings or parents or even grandparents or aunts or uncles—it is likely that some of them grapple with it as well. You might want to ask how they manage it, as they might have some good tips! Another place for good tips is Jenni Schaefer’s book Life Without Ed. In it, she discussed how dealing with perfectionism played a role in her eating disorder recovery.

The interesting thing about perfectionism is that there are negative and positive components to it—almost like a dark side and a light side (thank you, Star Wars!!). The dark side is constantly comparing yourself to others, over-focusing on your shortcomings, and feeling like a failure. The light side is that you tend to be goal-oriented and high-achieving. Eating disorder psychologist Dr. Jennie Wang-Hall runs a perfectionism group at UCSD Eating Disorders Center. In this group, Jennie teaches about the dark and light sides of perfectionism, and she emphasizes how tapping into the light side can help you recover. Just think, what if you take those goal-oriented and high-achieving traits in yourself and apply it to your recovery? Amazing things could happen! See it as a force for good instead of a force for evil. With Jennie, she prefers “high-achieving” to “perfectionism,” as the former term can hold less stigma.

So, you’ve admitted that you have perfectionistic traits. How the heck do you deal with them? The first pointer is using a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) technique of radical acceptance. When it comes to perfectionism, radical acceptance is embracing the fact that perfectionism (or being high-achieving) is part of your makeup. You can’t do anything about it. It is what it is. So radical acceptance means sitting in the moment and just letting your perfectionism BE. It doesn’t mean that you won’t do anything to manage it in the future; it means that at this moment, your perfectionism IS, and that’s okay, which means that YOU ARE OKAY.

The second pointer is employing a CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) technique of fact-checking. A lot of times you might find your mind getting onto the “why haven’t I” or “why didn’t I” or “what’s wrong with me” merry-go-round. What helps you get off the merry-go-round is taking a deep breath and engaging your prefrontal cortex (or higher-level brain) and asking yourself, “what are the facts?” When you do that, it helps you stop the self-criticism cycle and focus on the facts of the situation instead of your opinions or emotions. Some facts may include looking at the broader context. Instead of saying, “I screwed everything up,” you might say, “this situation was especially challenging.” You could also list out what you did WELL instead of cataloguing your shortcomings. You’ll be surprised at how positively you’re handling the situation.

The third pointer is practicing mindful self-compassion. When the dark side of perfectionism feels stronger, identify your emotions. What are you feeling right now? Angry? Sad? Disappointed? Lonely? Overwhelmed? Afraid? Then, show yourself COMPASSION for experiencing these emotions. VALIDATE your feelings. You may even wrap your arms around you and give yourself a hug and say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now. It makes sense that I feel overwhelmed because this situation is really hard.” If you struggle in showing yourself compassion, think of what you might say to a loved one if she/he/they are hurting. Then, say that very same thing to yourself.

All in all, I think that practicing radical acceptance, checking the facts, and showing yourself compassion are wonderful strategies to push back the darker side perfectionism so you can embrace the light and move forward in your recovery!


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