People with eating disorders tend to be high-achieving. This is due in part to a perfectionistic trait that becomes very prevalent as an eating disorder develops. A child with near-perfect grades may crumble into distress at the very sight of a “B” on a report card. An adult may work himself into the ground, only to find that the endless pursuit of perfection in body and in the workplace is leading to serious health consequences. What is the connection between eating disorders and the perfectionist?
Never Good Enough
Somewhere inside a perfectionist is a deep feeling of unworthiness. This is a person who feels unlovable and likely experiences a lot of shame. Brene Brown says of perfectionism: “Perfectionism 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.”
Unfortunately, this is never the case. As we try to do everything perfectly, not only do we start to feel like it is never enough, but we also start to feel even more that WE are never enough. It is simply impossible to be perfect, and the attempt to do so causes further loss of self-esteem.
Shame’s Vicious Cycle
The eating disorder cycle is fueled in part by shame. Shame is that void at the center of a perfectionist’s soul, and is the catalyst for many of the behaviors that lead to and sustain eating disorders. There is an incessant striving for SOMETHING- if only we are smarter, faster, thinner, stronger, more spiritual, a better husband, a better daughter, a better meditator. If only we were these things, then all problems would be solved. So we wake up and run all day, eating less, exercising more, falling into bed exhausted at night and waking up the next day with the same void in our souls. The previous day’s striving did not bring us the perfection we seek, so we must begin again. Until the root cause of that shame and suffering is discovered, the cycle will continue.
Moving Past Perfectionism
Perfectionism, with all its lofty goals of achievement and success, will paralyze us into inaction. At some point, a perfectionistic person will stop trying because of the fear of failure. Vanessa Coggshall writes: “Instead of living comfortably in the middle of perfection and failure, I went completely the other direction. Because my world was black and white- either I was successful in everything I touched or I was an utter failure….I couldn’t be happy with my effort- with the thrill of just trying something new.”
Moving forward despite the paralysis of perfectionism takes a lot of courage. It requires taking action in that brief space between THINKING about doing something and deciding NOT to do it. We have a few seconds in that time to take action, fear and all. Practicing this brings us back to all the things that are joyful about life. Perfectionism is a trap, living is scary and beautiful and fun. Recovery from an eating disorder is all these things as well. It in a reintroduction to life, a reprieve from the captor of perfectionism. We might take one step up and two back, but it is always that faltering forward step that gives us the confidence to live again.
Coggshall, V. (2015). Scared to Try: Moving Beyond the Paralysis of Perfectionism. Tiny Buddha.