Perfectionistic Thinking and Doing
By Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CEDRD
In Need of Repair: Perfectionist Thinking and Doing
Perfection is a common thread in the development and exacerbation of many eating disorders. The low sense of self, ability, or purpose that leads to not feeling good about oneself often fuels perfectionism. The drive for perfection is a mechanism for establishing value or disguising feelings of worthlessness and is more often than not woven into the cloth of most eating disorders. This quest has many pitfalls, in particular the inevitable … all or nothing syndrome. We often hear: “I am either 100% on my program or I’ve totally lost it.” “If I can’t get A’s in school, I might as well not try.” “I cannot finish something unless it’s perfect.” “I didn’t exercise long enough.” “I did not lose enough weight.” “I didn’t practice enough.” “I will not allow myself to be pleased with or take ownership of anything unless it is extreme” (which perfection is). Driven by the fear of failing and of being unworthy, the pursuit of perfection stops you from completing a paper, finishing a painting, dancing in front of anyone, wearing a bathing suit, going out socially, loving your thighs, or accepting yourself. If I am not the best, the thinnest, or the most perfect, then I open the door for that moment of doubt, followed by the discovery that I am truly not good enough at all—a fraud.
Perfection keeps you from completion, judgment, and failure, and protects your low self-esteem from exposure. It keeps you stuck, unable to accomplish your goals or experience your potential. How many masterpieces, poems, communications, dinners, and gifts have been abandoned because they were not perfect, not good enough? How much genius and creativity has gone to the grave because perfection was unattainable?
Relinquishing the need for perfection allows for the presence of feelings. It creates uncertainty, fear, risk, and doubt. There is no longer black or white, but gray, all different shades, intensities, and textures. Perfection feels safe, while the gray can be unpredictable and scary. People with eating disorders need to strive for the gray, the uncomfortable, the middle, in spite of the fear and discomfort. Once again, this signals a risk, one well worth taking.
Tool: 85% Thinking and Doing
Start a list of things you have not done because of your eating disorder or because of the inability to get them perfect. You may make several lists of different categories: social, financial, professional, creative endeavors, pleasures, or just one master list. Set aside a week of time-outs devoted to making this happen. Keep adding to the list(s). Notice how many things you are not doing because they wouldn’t be done perfectly or according to a standard currently unattainable. Spend some time becoming aware of how this feels. Remember, awareness is the first step toward change. Work diligently on these lists, becoming aware of how many times you hear: “I wish this,” “if only that,” or ”someday I’ll get this.” Keep listening and observing how often you stop yourself by one justification or another. Do not give up this process. Just doing it may move you to change.
Next, relax your standard of completion from 100% to 85%. Choose one item on the list that you could complete just as you are now. For some of you, this may be hard to even hear or comprehend. Practice thinking less than 100% or doing less than your 120%. Walk for five minutes less. Clean out one less closet. Don’t rewrite the letter for the fourth time. Find one thing you have not been doing because you didn’t think you could do it perfectly. Do it without being perfect. Do it 85%. Think about what it would be like doing other things at 85%. Let yourself off the perfection hook. Do less! In this case, you may find that less is more.
As always, approach this with kindness and compassion. Remember that perfection may be the enemy in disguise and the reason why so many creations are never born.
About the Author:
Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN, CEDRD, is the founder and nutritional director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative and F.E.E.D. (Facilitated Eating Events and Direction) IOP in New York; author of the Learning/Teaching Eating Disorder Handout Series Manual on CD; and advisory board member to Monte Nido & Affiliates. Sondra speaks nationally on the prevention and treatment of eating disorders.