Understanding the Link Between Perfectionism and Eating Disorders
We’ve all been told that “Nobody’s perfect” and “Everyone makes mistakes,” but not all of us take this advice to heart. Perfectionists feel an intense pressure to be the best at everything they do and are overwhelmed with disappointment if they aren’t able to live up to their own unrealistic expectations.
The Imperfection of Perfectionism: Understanding the Link Between Perfectionism and Eating Disorders
Although perfectionism can be a healthy personality trait that leads people to strive for high achievement and social success, the desire to be perfect has also been associated with depression, personality disorders, heart disease, suicide, and eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
For a perfectionist, the day begins with a rigid set of goals and ends with a ruthless critique of the way none of the goals were adequately met. This results in feelings of self-loathing and isolation, which in turn leads to self-destructive behaviors like disordered eating. In many cases, an eating disorder is a maladaptive way of coping with negative feelings or regaining a sense of control.
"Eating disorders and perfectionism are similar in that they both evolve from self-destructive thoughts and behaviors related to an internalized expectation based on fulfilling unrealistic and highly demanding goals," says Dr. Michele Lob, PsyD., MFT, program director at the renowned eating disorder treatment facility The Victorian in Newport Beach, Calif.
While setting high standards is not itself a problem, perfectionism becomes troublesome when it prevents the individual from feeling good about their accomplishments or feeling worthy and valuable. Negative thoughts and beliefs can lead to low self-esteem, fear of making mistakes and all-or-nothing thinking, all of which can be early precursors to developing an eating disorder.
The difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism lies in whether the individual is able to set realistic goals and accept failure without losing their sense of self or their confidence. In other words, someone with a healthy desire for excellence strives to achieve their personal best, while a perfectionist strives to be the world’s best at everything.
Are You a Perfectionist?
Most people know if they’re perfectionists because they make themselves miserable with rigid goals and impossible expectations. The following are some of the characteristics common to most perfectionists:
- Striving to be better than everyone else
- Expecting to never make a mistake
- Feeling like a “loser” if perfection can’t be achieved
- Believing achievements are more important than who a person is
- Being constantly alert to weaknesses and imperfections in oneself and others
- Being unable to handle constructive criticism
- Feeling an overwhelming fear of rejection or failure
- Building a sense of identity based on the perceptions and opinions of others
- Being wary of success for fear of failing to maintain that level of achievement
- Being afraid to try to change negative thought patterns and behaviors because the result may not be perfect
- Feeling like nothing is ever good enough
- Deriving little satisfaction from even the most impressive accomplishments
- Being unable to accept compliments or feel good about a job well done
- Giving up after a minor setback or refusing to try new things for fear of failing
- As a result of these characteristics, perfectionists often experience low self-esteem, feelings of guilt or shame, depression, loneliness, chronic stress, lack of motivation and compulsive behavior.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
Society places immense cultural pressure on both men and women to achieve the “perfect body” as proof of personal success. Experts believe this pressure may trigger the competitiveness and compulsiveness of individuals predisposed to eating disorders, leading to disordered behaviors such as excessive orderliness, ritualistic behavior and rigidity.
"I believe that eating disorders and perfectionism develop largely out of a sociocultural context where people are subjected to notions of perfectionism via media exposure to the 'perfect body type,'” explains Dr. Lob. “Most magazines espouse (covert or overtly) that the road to happiness is having the perfect body shape.
“This notion can be overwhelming for the 'people-pleasing' young person striving to meet the expectations of family members, peers and whatever sociocultural context in which they believe self-acceptance exists. Self-destructive behaviors such as self-blame and criticism lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness and depression."
Learning to Accept Less Than Perfection
Striving for perfection is not necessarily a virtue. The pressure to be perfect can be unbearable, sometimes leading to behaviors that are literally life-threatening. In the case of eating disorders, professional treatment is often the only cure.
Part of the recovery process is for the eating disorder sufferer to explore who they are and rebuild their self-esteem. By developing a realistic understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, needs and preferences, they are able to overcome rigid thinking and grant themselves room to excel as well as room to fail.
“The ideal environment for the development of a solid self is one that is not critical, punitive or demanding,” advises Dr. Lob. “The ideal environment values self-acceptance and affirmation."
When receiving anorexia treatment or bulimia treatment, men and women with eating disorders learn to treat themselves with compassion and “talk back” to the negative, irrational thoughts with positive, realistic responses.
At The Victorian, women with eating disorders learn acceptance, compassion for self and others, flexibility, and ways to regroup after making a mistake or experiencing a “failure.” With the support of caring staff and peers who understand the disordered mindset, patients revise their definition of success and change their way of thinking.
Perfectionism is not only an ineffective way to approach life, it is also a dangerous one. Demanding the impossible from oneself is a recipe for failure that often results in a host of physical, emotional and psychological problems. One of the most devastating problems is an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. By entering treatment, eating disorder sufferers learn to set more reasonable expectations, allowing them to accept themselves and achieve genuine success.
by Meghan Vivo