Perfectionism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” From a psychological perspective, Wikipedia defines perfectionism as “a broad personality style characterized by a person’s concern with striving for flawlessness and perfection… accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”
While both Oxford and Wikipedia’s definitions are accurate, Brené Brown’s definition, in The Gifts of Imperfection, is the one that strikes a chord with us. “Perfectionism,” she explains, “is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
Those who’ve struggled with an eating disorder can often relate closely to Brené Brown’s definition. While perfectionism isn’t always present alongside an eating disorders, perfectionism and eating disorders are highly correlated. Research dating back as early as 2003 identifies a strong relationship between perfectionism and eating disorders. Though research hasn’t proven a causal link between perfectionism and eating disorders, many of those who’ve experienced an eating disorder cite perfectionistic tendencies far earlier than the onset of their eating disorder. Interestingly, research has also shown that, among those working toward eating disorder recovery, levels of perfectionism diminish as one progresses more fully towards recovery. No matter the causal relationship between the two, perfectionism and eating disorders clearly share a unique connection.
Unlike the first two definition’s, Brown’s definition also opens the door for a conversation around shame, judgment and blame. At Reasons, we deeply acknowledge the way shame plays into an eating disorder. In an article for the Gurze ED Resource Catalogue, Reasons’ National Director, Nikki Rollo explained:
Shame frequently plays a central role in the development and maintenance of an eating disorder… In fact, eating disorders have been called “disorders of shame” (Kaufman, 1989). Those suffering from an eating disorder will experience themselves as deficient, unworthy, disgusting, or an overall failure at being a good human, with accompanying shame about their bodies and eating behaviors.
Rollo goes on to describe how those suffering from an eating disorder might leverage eating disorder behaviors – like restriction, bingeing, purging or extreme exercise – to relieve feelings of shame. However, the act of engaging in those behaviors can further deepen feelings of shame.
Perfectionism can relate to eating disorders. Perfectionism seeks to avoid shame. Eating disorder behaviors seek to alleviate shame. Yet, eating disorders and eating disordered behaviors often deepen one’s sense of shame. These statements feel like an endless downward spiral. How do those on the road to recovery escape this endless negative feedback loop?
First and foremost, those who are struggling with an eating disorder must seek treatment for this life-threatening illness. Efforts to address complex psychological issues like shame or perfectionism cannot be tackled properly when the mind and body are malnourished or in danger. Once a person is medically and psychiatrically stable, an effective eating disorder treatment program should begin to tackle the topic of perfectionism and shame. At Reasons, we explore a whole-person approach to recovery – working through topics about the eating disorder, and the psychological factors surrounding the eating disorder. Through individual and group therapy, recovery-oriented meals, art therapy, joyful movement, meditation, journaling and more, treatment at Reasons explores how to promote a life of recovery for body, mind and spirit.
Beyond the eating disorder treatment environment, the tools we use to tackle perfectionism bear similarity to the mindfulness practices we promote in treatment at Reasons. When you find yourself spinning toward that negative perfectionism feedback loop, consider these three steps:
1. Name it.
If you find yourself ruminating on a perceived problem or issue for too long, take a step back and ask yourself if you’re being too critical or seeking a “perfect” outcome. Notice if you are approaching the issue or task at hand with a perfectionist tendency.
2. Note it.
Once you’ve recognized perfectionism at play, take note of the circumstances. Are there particular types of situations or issues that draw out your perfectionist tendencies more than others? What are the common markers that you experience? Being aware of your triggers will help you stay alert to when perfectionism arises.
3. Reframe it.
Rather than looking at what isn’t “perfect,” acknowledge the baby steps and small victories that got you to this moment. Set goals and expectations that are smaller, more realistic and more achievable, then celebrate the little victories of achieving those goals. Reframing your goals and expectations will create space to celebrate yourself versus put yourself down. Listen closely to your self-talk and pivot away from negative messages towards ones of encouragement and compassion. It may also help to talk to another person to help you reframe your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, another voice can offer a helpful shift of perspective.
Those who struggle with perfectionism may never fully relieve themselves of perfectionist tendencies; however, approaching day-to-day life mindfully can drastically reduce the negative feedback that perfectionism creates. As we learn to see, note and reframe our thoughts, feelings and actions, we exercise compassion with ourselves.
Compassion is the antidote to perfectionism. Self-criticism and judgment wither in the face of love and acceptance. As you navigate the road to recovery, know that each stride you make toward self-love and self-care is a step toward wholeness – in all its messy, imperfect, beautiful humanity.
American Journal of Psychiatry, February 2003