Perfectionism is a common theme among individuals who struggle with eating disorders. Any person’s drive for perfectionism is invariably tied to an underlying sense of reduced self-worth or beliefs of being “not good enough.” In the case of people with eating disorders, their bodies become an external canvas for internal battles with perfectionism and a low sense of self.
The eating disorder itself serves as a metaphoric representation for what is going on within the person. The individual’s compulsions to control their weight and body shape with various harmful behaviors with food and exercise often mirrors an internal drive for perfectionistic achievement and performance. Both the external standards for their bodies and the demands of themselves for excellence in other activities are unrealistic. The pressures people put un themselves for such unreasonable standards are, at best, exhausting and, at worst, life-threatening.
Perfectionism is an inherently self-destructive belief system that fuels attempts to avoid emotional pain—particularly judgment, blame, and shame—by seeking flawless appearance and/or performance. However, perfectionism is, by definition, an unattainable goal, which inevitably sets the individual up for a letdown. Moreover, research debunks the notion that perfectionism helps propel people to success. In fact, evidence indicates that perfectionism actually hampers achievement and is associated with higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness, including eating disorders. The fear of making any mistakes usually inhibits people from taking chances, living authentically, or engaging in healthy competition, and it results in a lot of missed opportunities.
The cycle of perfectionism and shame:
Perfectionism and shame are inherently intertwined. Ironically, it is often the desire to avoid feelings of shame that propels people to engage in perfectionistic thinking and behaviors in the first place. However, a sense of “failure” is always around the corner when someone employs a perfectionistic belief system. When a person inevitably does not live up to the unattainable standards that they have set, then the feelings of self-blame, judgment, and shame come in—often with a vengeance. Thus begins the vicious cycle of shame – perfectionism – shame.
For individuals with eating disorders, this cycle also gets played out in their behaviors with food. For instance, an individual may strive to lose weight in order to attain the “perfect” or “ideal” body size. The person begins to restrict caloric intake to a point of extreme deprivation, which triggers the person to binge. Then, the person feels such shame at having deviated from their unrealistic and harmful path of restriction that they purge. At which point, the person begins the cycle all over again. Similar patterns exist for each type of eating disorder.
Stopping the cycle:
The shame – perfectionism – shame cycle will persist until a person makes a conscious effort to start doing things differently. This means taking a hard introspective look at the origins of shame and the resulting drive for perfection. It means identifying the underlying harmful beliefs about oneself—the “not good enough,” or “not worthy,” or “not deserving” beliefs—and working to shift toward a self-image imbued with compassion and love. People must also take concrete steps to shift perfectionistic behaviors, such as giving themselves time for rest, relaxation, and recuperation, and cutting out certain activities that do not bring joy or true fulfillment. When we learn to love ourselves fully, we give ourselves permission to be human, to be our authentic selves, and even to make mistakes.