I used to be a self-identified perfectionist. In many ways, perfectionism has served me. It helped me achieve a 4.0 GPA, it keeps my to-do list short, and it makes sure my bills are paid on time. It moves me forward in my career and my house is always clean. When I went through trauma, perfectionism, high standards, and rules helped me make sense of the world and made me feel safe.
Perfectionism was also one of the biggest contributors to starting, perpetuating, and inhibiting recovery from my eating disorder. How could something so helpful in other areas of my life hold me back so much in my relationship with food?
The core of perfectionism is a fear of failure, or feeling like a failure. But there’s no way to “fail” with food. The idea of failure around food is an interesting one — it implies that my body doesn’t know what it’s doing when it comes to food. When you’re trying to be the best at everything, food starts to naturally fall under that umbrella. But when we really think about it, is there a way to be the “best” at food? Everyone is so different in what their body needs, so there’s no use in comparing myself to the metabolism, hunger, fullness, and energy levels of someone who is not me.
Some typical signs of perfectionism include: black and white thinking, all or nothing thinking, being highly critical of yourself, yet also very defensive of criticism from others, liking rules and predictability, and one’s self-worth lying in achievements.
So how does this translate to food and an eating disorder? Black and white thinking looks like labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” All or nothing thinking is having one cookie and thinking that the day is ruined, so you also eat a bag of chips and a pint of ice cream. Self-criticism shows up in beating yourself up for every food choice. Defensiveness looks like jumping down your family’s throat when they suggest you have an issue with food. Liking rules and predictability manifests in feeling safe and comfortable when you know exactly what foods you’re going to eat that day. Self-worth lying in achievements is feeling good about yourself based on how little you ate that day or what food choices you made. As you can see from these examples, perfectionism comes into the picture with both restricting food and binging food.
I had to work really hard on putting my perfectionist self back in its place. That doesn’t mean to say that I got rid of it entirely. It’s part of my personality, and I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t have to be all of my personality or overshadow all of my actions. Again, because perfectionism, rules, and order are often a response to trauma, it makes sense why sometimes that personality trait becomes so dominant.
Once we see our own perfectionistic tendencies, what do we do about it? As perfectionists thrive in rigidity, the key to reducing it lies in flexibility. We want to move from a perfectionist to an optimalist. Perfection is stubborn and doesn’t change, optimal adapts. Perfection rejects reality, optimal accepts reality. Perfection is high expectations, optimal is realistic expectations.
What would optimalism look like with food and body? Adjusting your plan with food based on how you feel, what you’re doing, and who you’re with. Accepting the reality of what your body type is and what your natural weight point is. Realistically anticipating that mistakes and setbacks happen with recovery, and not fearing them. Adapting your exercise plans for opportunities that come up, or how you’re feeling.
I no longer identify as a perfectionist because it wasn’t helpful in the long term. It made my life so rigid and rule-based that there was no room for growth, self-compassion, relationships, or fun. The more I learn how to be flexible with food (and everything else in my life) the more my sense of worth becomes intrinsic. Perfectionism was all about being the best, and optimalism is all about being my best.