How to Finally Break Free From Perfectionism

My 13-year-old daughter painted the picture that is featured in this article. I am proud of her talent as a young artist. I am more proud that we were able to sit down and discuss what it meant to her. She came up with the title “breaking through perfection.” I agreed that her painting represents this. The image is of a very “picture perfect” young woman, her perfect features, perfect hair, and the freedom and strength it takes to scratch and break free from that. Not an easy task for a woman, or man, young or old in a culture that encourages the perfect, the best, the competitive, the comparative.

Self-critical perfectionism is known to be a primary contributing mechanism to the formation of and continuation of all eating disorders. It is a personality construct that is very externally reinforced.

Meaning, it is one that is often rewarded early on through such things as good behavior, grades, achievements, and choices. Perfectionism in and by itself does not necessarily have to have a negative influence. When channeled in the right way it can actually be a very motivating factor that assists in performance and success.

When channeled in the right way perfectionism can actually be a very motivating factor that assists in performance and success.

However, the problem-causing side of perfectionism is the self-criticism that often comes along with it. If and when you cannot do something perfectly to your or someone else’s standards what happens? Do you become self-critical? Do you put yourself down? The self-critical side of perfectionism is what has been most studied in eating disorders as it is self-critical thoughts that are most damaging and have been shown to remain in existence long after eating disorder behaviors are gone. It is these thoughts over time that is known to be a contributing factor to the relapse of eating disorder symptoms. These thoughts most often show up in regard to body image and ideals, relationship with food and others, and are the ones that are hard to shake. They are the ones that are rigidly fixed and obsessive.

I most often hear my clients speak about these rigid or obsessive thoughts in regard to body dissatisfaction, another risk and maintaining factor in eating disorders. Perfectionistic ideals of body lead to dissatisfaction and fear of external body changes. Perfectionistic, rigid ideas often show up around food as well, such as seeing one food as perfect and another as bad. After all, if something is so perfect or good that means something else must be all bad or not good, as perfectionistic thoughts lead to rigid, divided thoughts.

How do we shake them? How do we begin to let these thoughts go? To start with, there needs to be an understanding about them that is NOT perfectionistic. In other words, it would be perfectionistic to believe that you can rid yourself completely of them, at least for right now. Instead, what you can be in search for is a more balanced view of them. Awareness of these thoughts is the first step in developing this balanced view. Below is a list of perfectionistic thoughts that may be interfering with your recovery and sustainment of your recovery and the self-compassionate response to help set you free.

  1. I should be able to get rid of this disorder
    I never asked for this disorder. There were multiple factors in its development that I may or may not understand. I will still face the truth without blaming myself or anyone else.
  2. Why is this taking so long? Why can’t I just eat normally?
    Recovery takes time. This eating disorder has taken time to develop and it will take time to heal. I will accept that recovery is a process that will go up and down. I will encourage my ups and support my downs.
  3. I wished my body looked like hers.
    I understand that every time I focus on my surface body and compare myself to others that I am setting myself up for pain and divide. Comparison brings suffering. I may not yet feel comfortable in my body but I know I do not want more suffering.
  4. I am so perfect at so many other things. Why can’t I be perfect at recovery too

There is no such thing as a perfect recovery and there is no such thing as perfect.

I will accept that recovery, like life is messy, hard, and often a struggle. I will accept that it is not perfection I strive for but rather a full, joyous, but often messy, and sometimes hard life.

Image Source: © 2016 Dr. Ann Saffi-Biasetti

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1 Comment

  • hmmm,
    I have an ed and am in pschye terms am an underfunctioner. Also, I am not good at anything really. I have chronic illnesses and struggle to get through everyday.
    Not all ed sufferers are good at everything they do, except eating of course.

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