Research evidence indicates that the trait of perfectionism is very common among people who are experiencing an Eating Disorder. An acute end of this attribute is called “Clinical Perfectionism”. Perfectionism can contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders.
In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting immense performance standards, followed by demanding self-evaluations and concerns regarding the opinions of others. Perfectionism has been linked to depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, OCD and suicide.
Features of Clinical Perfectionism
- Over-evaluation of achieving in all areas of life such as work, performance, sports, music, eating disorders.
- Preoccupation with thoughts of performance.
- Avoiding exams or social outings for fear of not being perfect.
- Pursuit of personally demanding standards despite those standards having a negative effect on one’s health and relationships.
- Performance checking.
- Not taking into account successes already achieved.
How perfectionism shows up in eating disorders:
When individuals are experiencing an eating disorder, extreme standards for performance are projected onto eating, weight and shape. Being imperfect is not allowed and is viewed as being a catastrophe. Social media, TV, and glossy magazines add an extra pressure when it comes to eating, weight and body image. Perfectionism will continue to show up in relation to a person’s behaviour and thoughts around food. For example, they can only eat healthy food, they have to exercise daily, and they continue to shape check. The person’s self-worth is built on their weight and shape, and they become entrapped in a cycle of self-hate.
Questions to ask yourself if you think you have perfectionism: (Anthony 2015)
1. Are your standards higher than those of other people?
2. Are you able to meet your standards? Do you get overly upset if you don’t meet your own standards?
3. Are other people able to meet your standards? Do you get overly upset if others don’t meet your standards?
4. Do your standards help you to achieve your goals or do they get in the way? (e.g. by making you overly disappointed or angry when your standards are not met, by making you get less work done, etc.)
5. What would be the costs of relaxing a particular standard or ignoring a rule that you have?
6. What would be the benefits of relaxing a specific standard or ignoring a rule that you have?
How can we overcome Clinical Perfectionism in Eating Disorders?
- Awareness - Start to become aware of where perfectionism shows up in your relationship with food, body, weight and shape checking.
- Accept that you have perfectionistic traits and take action. (It takes courage to allow yourself to be imperfect in a world that strives for perfectionism.)
- Reach out for professional help. Reframe Mistakes as Learning Events.
- Look around your environment - has it become Toxic with other people’s standards of perfectionism? Are you taking them on?
- Use Mantras such as: “I have the right to make mistakes, I am only human”.
- Use Mindfulness, Breathwork and EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques).
- Use language such as “I could” or “I might”. Saying to yourself “I should” or “I must” is part of perfectionism.
- Become aware if you have ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. (Also known as ‘black-and-white thinking”.)