How to Let Go of Perfectionism in Eating Disorder Recovery
There’s a typo on this page.
Years ago, the blog that you are reading would have never included a typo.
Back then, I was an over-studier and obsessive proofreader. My blogs might not have had errors, but today — they just might. I know how much my obsessiveness with being perfect was affecting me personally. So, I made the decision to change.
A perfectionist from a young age
Growing up, I maintained a 4.0 GPA, but I didn’t have many friends. I rarely had fun. I was also fighting a life-threatening eating disorder. I strived for perfection with food, weight and everything else in life. In reality, this was killing me.
Back then, my perfectionism and my eating disorder were working closely together; they were like a good cop and bad cop. Thanks to recovery, I learned that I could “personify” my issues (good cop/bad cop). This allowed me to take a step back to see how they were controlling me.
My perfectionism became “Ms. Perfectionist.” My eating disorder was E.D. — or simply Ed.
Writing out dialog like below helped me distinguish their voices from my own, so that I could learn to disagree with and even disobey their destructive ideas:
Ms. Perfectionist (Bad Cop): Write perfectly.
Ed (Good Cop): Ms. Perfectionist is too hard on you. Why don’t you just go to the refrigerator and binge?
Bingeing was a foolproof way to numb anxiety in the moment, but the relief never lasted. Ultimately, the good cop and bad cop would switch roles:
Ed (now Bad cop): You’re a horrible person for bingeing. You’re going to gain weight!
Ms. Perfectionist (now Good cop): I will make sure you don’t gain weight. You will eat perfectly today. (Translation: restrict.)
Perfectionism existed both within my eating disorder — being the perfect weight and eating the “right” amount — as well as outside of it, like error-free writing. Below are strategies that helped me break free.
Struggles with eating disorders and prefectionism often go undetected. When struggling with anorexia, I was complimented daily (“You look great!”) — but the reality was that I was living with a mental illness with the highest mortality rate.
To heal, I needed professional help.
In my life, my perfectionistic tendencies were applauded. I won awards. I was accepted to medical school. But here's the downside: perfectionism caused so much turmoil and pain that I never even went to medical school. By the time I was accepted, my perfectionism was at such a height — and so intertwined with my eating disorder—that I truly believed staying on the path of “perfect” with school would kill me.
I learned that there was such a thing as unhelpful and helpful perfectionism. This is what I discovered:
Helpful (or healthy) perfectionism — encourages us to meet high standards and to strive for excellence. (Note: I didn’t say anything about being perfect.) When we are in a place of healthy perfectionism, we feel good about ourselves and are excited about our goals. This type of perfectionism enables me to be a detail-oriented author. I catch typos.
Unhealthy perfectionism — includes rigidity, spending too much time on projects, and feeling downright beaten up.
Practice being perfectly imperfect
So, this brings me back to why I included a typo in this blog.
In therapy, I learned about “exposure.” To me, exposure means doing something uncomfortable in the short term in order to get comfortable with doing it in the long run.
Here’s an example: my therapist assigned me to purposefully send emails with typos. This was excruciatingly difficult at first. But, in the end, I stopped over-checking and over-analyzing my messages and I became more efficient at responding.
Another example: I hung crooked curtains in my apartment (something I could never have done in the past). When I looked at the imbalanced windows, I was reminded that perfectly imperfect is okay. In fact, I started leaving other “perfectly imperfect” reminders throughout my life.
Make time for fun
My idea of fun used to be folding laundry while watching television. If you are a perfectionist, you know what I mean. If not, here’s the rationale: Ms. Perfectionist would allow me to do something “unproductive” if it was combined with a productive task — like folding laundry.
When I explained this to my therapist, I was assigned yet another exposure. I was to have more fun — for fun’s sake only.
At the time, I had no idea what the point of “fun” was. “’Fun’ isn’t productive. ‘Fun’ doesn’t pay the bills,” I told her.
At first, my assignment, watching the TV show “Friends,” was no fun at all. But, slowly, I began to enjoy it. I realized that we all have a limited amount of time, energy, and resources. I needed to learn to prioritize my values given these limitations. One of my new goals in life was to simply “have fun.”
I also prioritized recovery. Not missing therapy sessions became more important than staying late at work. This was another example of letting go of perfectionism.
Perfectionism and my eating disorder
Some of these examples might not sound like they relate to my struggle with food and weight, but they do.
Society tells us that there is a right and wrong way to eat, that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad.” But, food is just food; it doesn’t have a moral value. If I eat intuitively and take perfectionism out of the kitchen, I will eat in a balanced way. And my body will achieve its own ideal weight, which is not a perfect number in a magazine.
In real life, it is normal to overeat from time to time. And we don’t need to “compensate” by restricting, purging or over-exercising when we eat past the point of fullness. Our bodies are exquisite works of art that can naturally compensate for normal fluctuations in eating without us doing anything at all.
Recovering from perfectionism
I may have been born with the perfectionistic trait, but I was not born with an eating disorder. After lots of falling down and getting back up again, I am fully recovered from my eating disorder, and I am a happy, recovering perfectionist.
If you relate, I encourage you to seek help from friends, family, and professionals. You, too, can find peace in being perfectly imperfect.
As a final note, did you happen to catch the typo while reading? If not, I propose an exposure challenge: breathe, click off the page (share the post first!) and leave the mistake undetected — forever. Like me, I hope you will learn that letting go, in the end, opens our lives up to so much more.
How will you prioritize your values today?
In partnership with Insight Behavioral Health Centers (877-737-7391), Eating Recovery Center (877-957-6575) provides specialized treatment for eating disorders as well as related disorders, including perfectionism and OCD.
Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author and popular speaker on eating disorders and related disorders, including PTSD.