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Is Perfectionism Eating You Up?

By Michelle May, M.D.

“If I’m wearing clothes, the laundry isn’t done!”doing laundry

We all burst out laughing at the absurdity and the truth in this statement made by Katharine, a participant in our summer Am I Hungry?® Retreat. She was telling us how hard she is on herself and how impossibly high her standards are for “deserving” a break.

What does that have to do with eating? Everything!

Perfectionism is one of the accelerating forces in the eat-repent-repeat cycle. You may remember reading about my personal experience with this type of thinking on page 47 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. Learning to recognize and manage perfectionism was a turning point in my personal recovery from disordered eating.

Although perfectionism still shows up when I’m under stress (or maybe stress shows up when I’m under perfectionism!), most of the time I’m able to stay on the “striving for excellence” side of that fine line.

Do you have perfectionism?

People who struggle with perfectionism often…

  • Set excessively high performance standards, attempt to achieve unrealistic goals, and strive for an unattainable ideal
  • Invest a significant amount of time and energy trying to meet their impossibly high standards
  • Measure their self-worth by their productivity and accomplishments
  • Set themselves up for dissatisfaction and disappointment
  • Are overly critical and harsh in their self-evaluation
  • Are overly concerned about how others evaluate them
  • Fear that others will reject them if they aren’t perfect
  • May experience anxiety about potential failure
  • May put a lot of pressure on others to be perfect too, including partners, children, employees, and co-workers
  • May have difficulty connecting with others because they may be perceived as being “too good” (when in fact, their greatest fear is not being good enough)
  • Difficulty finishing projects (and sometimes, blog posts!)

Bottom line: Expecting perfection from yourself and others guarantees that you’ll never be happy.

Why Does Perfectionism Cause Problems with Food?

Katharine realized that she was eating to give herself a break, since “real” breaks to relax weren’t allowed until everything was finished to perfection. And of course, it never would be! There are many other ways that perfectionism can interfere with a healthy relationship with food. Some examples:

  • It eats up your time and energy, leaving little time for self-care
  • You might eat to relieve the stress and anxiety of constantly striving for perfection.
  • You might reach for food to console yourself when you feel bad or frustrated about failing to meet the mark.
  • You might be striving for the perfect body (whatever that is), leading to unhealthy eating or exercise behaviors.
  • You might expect yourself (or others) to eat perfectly (whatever that means). Have you heard of orthorexia?
  • If you also struggle with “all or nothing” thinking (as many people who struggle with food do), you might binge when you don’t fail to “do” your diet perfectly (“I’ve already blown it; I might as well keep eating”).
  • You might expend a lot of effort hiding your overeating or bingeing in order to maintain the outward appearance of having it all together.
  • You might be struggling with shame and guilt about this “double life” and that can drive more emotional eating
  • You might live in fear of people discovering your secret or isolate yourself to avoid being “found out.”
  • You might feel like you are never good enough; this painful thought may leave you feeling undeserving of joy.

Overcoming perfectionism isn’t easy but it is essential. Next post: “Striving for Good Enough.”

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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