Many people with eating disorders struggle with perfectionism, and I was no different. Striving for perfection in all areas of my life propelled me deep into my eating disorder. When I began recovery I continued to cling to that need to be perfect.
I wanted to do recovery perfectly, the best, better than anyone ever had before.
The problem is the need to be perfect was a symptom of the eating disorder. Especially when coupled with the belief that if I’m not perfect, then I am worthless. This mentality translated to school, work, love, therapy…essentially every part of my life.
Letting go of perfectionism
Here are three simple, yet powerful practices that helped me let go of being perfect. They helped me move out of my eating disorder and step into a place of strong recovery. Just remember, there’s no way to do these perfectly. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does often make new habits feel more natural. That may not fit into a snappy catchphrase, but it captures the truth.
Self-compassion can be a difficult habit to ingrain, but it can be a real game-changer in moving forward in recovery. Our eating disorder brains can make it feel logical to scold ourselves for every misstep. But all that does is bury us in shame, which is never the motivator we think it will be.
Telling yourself that you must do recovery perfectly and that if you don’t, you’re a failure is not helpful. Instead, try something like: I would really like to maintain a strong recovery and will continue to do that work.
Remind yourself if you slip up, that in no way negates your worth as a person.
It can also help to recruit loved ones or your treatment team to help reinforce and model compassion. If you have a bad body image day, don’t pretend the thought doesn’t exist and scold yourself internally. Try telling a friend/loved one/therapist that you’re having a bad body image day. Maybe they’ll give you guidance on how to maneuver it. Perhaps they’ll just listen. Getting it out into the open and being willing to show that you are fallible can help. Having that received with nurturance and compassion will only make your recovery and sense of self stronger.
It is easy to become frustrated because you are not where you want to be in your recovery. The elusive point of “recovered” can feel so far away. We can get angry at ourselves for struggling at all. Express gratitude for how far you’ve come and the work you’ve done. This can turn your frustration into inspiration and evidence of what you’re capable of.
Think about this. It wasn’t your recovered self that talked you into getting treatment or pushed you through challenge meals or brought you to this page seeking guidance – it was the very part of you that you’re most likely to get frustrated with for not being farther along. That part of you – the struggling part – has gotten you this far.
When I had urges in the past, I often suppressed them, rather than working through them by myself or even in therapy. I was buried in my own judgments that I should be past that point by now. I focused instead on gratitude for how far I had come and the work that I put in. This lifted me out of many a shame spiral and gave space for compassion. And we already know how essential that is.
Find gratitude for the part of you that continues to seek help no matter how many times you backslide. This may give you the space to accept that help and guidance, thus propelling you forward in your recovery.
If perfectionism and rigidity fuel an eating disorder, it makes sense that flexibility fuels recovery.
It is important to allow space in your mind for the plan to change. Flexibility will allow you to step into each new stage of your recovery with less turmoil. Even if it’s just preparing yourself to transition from your therapist in treatment to an outpatient therapist flexibility helps.
Being flexible will also allow you to move forward in your recovery by allowing room for you to backslide. It may seem counterintuitive, but the pressure we put on ourselves to not slip up can keep us timid in our recovery. When we don’t push ourselves out of our comfort zone, we hold ourselves back. When we avoid a zone that induces urges because we’re afraid of relapse, we remain in a state of pseudo-recovery.
When I was in this state, I wasn’t using eating disorder behaviors. But I wasn’t yet free to experiment with any food or movement that might provoke my eating disorder. There was no room for steps backward, so I could never step beyond those challenges.
The reality is, sometimes you do have to take two steps forward and one step back, to keep yourself from getting stuck in eating disorder limbo.
Saying good-bye to perfectionism
We are all human. We are all fallible.
And the people we tend to find most interesting and relatable are the ones who show their flaws.
I’m in strong recovery and I still have bad body image days. But they don’t lead to urges like they used to. I’m not ashamed of them anymore. In fact, the ability to look in the mirror, feel dissatisfied, and not spiral into negative self-talk actually feels like a huge win. It started with letting go of the need to be perfect. Even if urges do resurface, they no longer feel like a failure of my recovery.
Making perfectionism a goal in any area of life is fruitless. It is also unattainable and damaging. We’re all better off striving to do our best, whatever that may look like on any given day. We can never be perfect. If we know in our souls that regardless of the past, in this moment we’re trying to move forward and do better, then that’s something to be proud of.