How to Start Healthy Eating After an Eating Disorder
Perfectionism may be a bigger barrier than you think.
Posted April 9, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Research shows that individuals diagnosed with eating disorders tend to have significantly higher levels of perfectionism.
- The unrelenting pursuit to be perfect is associated with enduring symptoms of restriction. Fortunately, reducing perfectionism can aid recovery.
- Challenging rigid beliefs and cultivating self-compassion can help in your recovery.
This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.
Many people misunderstand perfectionism, assuming that it stems from motivation or professionalism. But true perfectionism is a lot more complicated—and damaging—than that. Striving to be perfect can show up in all areas of life, including work and school, hobbies and sports, cleaning and organizing, writing and speaking, relationships, physical appearance, health, and hygiene.
People diagnosed with eating disorders tend to have high levels of perfectionism.
It can also show up in eating habits. A 2010 study by Bardon-Cone et al. shows that individuals diagnosed with eating disorders tend to have significantly higher levels of perfectionism than others. Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa, often go along with a perfectionist mindset.
But like many things, perfectionism can be hard to pinpoint since it often involves avoiding challenges. Because of this, it's important not to assume that every perfectionist in your life is struggling with an eating disorder—but it's equally important to understand how the two can be related and how trading self-compassion for perfectionism can help someone recover.
Impossible, unrealistic standards are harmful.
Striving for greatness is generally seen as a positive trait and is widely celebrated in our culture. But perfectionism takes that desire to a rigid and unrealistic level that can cause harm. Here are some characteristics of perfectionism:
- High standards for oneself or other people that others may consider extreme or even impossible
- Measuring self-worth by the ability to reach those impossibly high standards
- Continuing to hold those standards despite negative consequences or understanding that they are extreme
- Excessive checking, organizing, list-making, and planning
- Avoiding or procrastinating because of the fear of not living up to high standards
- Self-punishment or negativity in the event of setbacks, failures, or avoiding performing according to the high standards
The desire to be perfect is associated with enduring symptoms of food restriction.
When it comes to unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders, perfectionist traits appear in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Here are what they typically look like in people with eating disorders and disordered eating:
- Having extreme, impossible, or dangerous expectations for body weight, body image, calorie intake, muscles, fitness, or exercise
- Having self-worth that’s tied to body weight or shape
- Using self-talk about eating, weight, or body shape that is harsh and punishing
- Having a fixed mindset regarding body image, despite negative consequences
- Strictly adhering to food rules, such as labeling foods and eating behaviors as good or bad
- Constantly tracking weight, measurements, macronutrients, calories, etc.
- Feeling guilty or anxious about experiencing negative emotions
- Having obsessive thoughts that focus on shortcomings and imperfections
- Avoiding close relationships, difficult emotions, or challenges to "protect against" feelings of inadequacy
- Comparing oneself to others, which leads to feelings of despair
- Purging, binge eating, isolating, fasting, or dieting when impossibly high standards are not met
In reality, being human is an imperfect experience. As a result, holding on to perfectionism can bring self-criticism and shame. When coupled with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, the unrelenting pursuit to be perfect can also lead to disastrous health consequences.
The negative self-talk comes from your "inner critic," a harsh voice inside of you that tells you how you need to look and shames you when you don't reach that ideal.
Self-compassion can make all the difference.
Fortunately, the same study by Bardon-Cone et al. demonstrated that reducing perfectionism could aid in fuller recovery from eating disorders because it targets the rigid beliefs that keep you stuck, obsessing over the concept of an “ideal” body. This is where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion is an important tool to combat perfectionist tendencies because it helps you to nonjudgmentally accept that you are human, that you are perfectly imperfect. Frequent and longstanding perfectionist thoughts can and should be challenged.
Befriend your inner critic. Identify where your inner critic's concerns are coming from—perhaps from a narrative you're holding onto from childhood or from fears and anxieties you’re facing now.
Become curious about your thoughts so you can leverage their power. Separate thoughts about what is possibly true from thoughts that are likely facts. For example, change a thought from "If I eat bread with my dinner, I’m a failure and must not care about my health as much as I say I do" to "Eating bread with dinner is normal and delicious; it is healthy to enjoy a variety of foods." Create a new narrative by introducing more compassionate voices alongside your inner critic. Use kind words and a gentle, supportive tone when you speak to yourself.
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Keep in mind that you are the author of the stories you tell yourself. Practice applying self-compassion strategies to escape the negative impact of perfectionism.
Build self-compassion practices to escape the rigid confines of perfectionism.
Here are some ways to get started:
- Accept your unique genetic blueprint and the truth—that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Connect to your body with respect, love, and kindness.
- Redefine your self-worth by including values beyond your physical appearance, what and how much you eat, or how much you exercise.
- Use a gentle, patient, kind, supportive tone during self-talk.
- Value the way your body functions and all it does for you without judgment.
- Treat foods as emotionally equivalent, rather than labeling them as good or bad.
- Be present in the moment. When you notice yourself calculating or counting, remind yourself that this is not a helpful behavior. Shift your attention to the taste, texture, and scent of foods. Notice your levels of hunger and fullness.
- Allow yourself to experience the full range of positive and negative emotions without judgment. Reduce any tendency to hold on tightly to certain emotions or attempts to push away others. Your emotions will come and go like leaves floating along a river.
- Accept that all humans, including you, are imperfect. Make your negative thoughts less sticky by practicing the skill of placing your attention on more helpful thoughts. Pay attention to what you like about your body and what you appreciate about your health.
- Listen to your body. When it comes to hunger and fullness and exercise regimens, pay attention to honest messages from your body about what you need and when to stop.
- Use a beginner’s mind to approach relationships, emotions, food, exercise, and challenges. As if trying something for the first time, approach experiences with curiosity and a lack of expectations.
- Treat yourself with the same kindness you would use with your closest friend. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Be your own ally.
- View experiences as an opportunity to learn. Use your awareness of what you don’t yet know as a prime time to accept where you are and observe and build new skills.
Healthy eating during recovery from an eating disorder requires flexibility.
Learn to unlearn perfectionist tendencies to support healthy eating during recovery from an eating disorder. There are many other self-compassion techniques you can work on at home or with a mental health professional. Meditation, especially loving-kindness meditation, can be a beneficial tool for practicing self-compassion. Cognitive behavioral therapy, values clarification therapy, intuitive eating, and compassion-focused therapy can make a positive difference too.
Treat yourself with patience and kindness. Accept what you perceive as failures and inadequacies through the lens of being a unique person in the tapestry of humanity.
Bardone-Cone, A. M., Sturm, K., Lawson, M. A., Robinson, D. P., & Smith, R. (2010). Perfectionism across stages of recovery from eating disorders. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43(2), 139–148. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20674
Brown, A. J., Parman, K. M., Rudat, D. A., & Craighead, L. W. (2012). Disordered eating, perfectionism, and food rules. Eating Behaviors, 13(4), 347–53. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.05.011.
Schaefer, L. M., Smith, K. E., Anderson, L. M., Cao, L., Crosby, R. D., Engel, S. G., Crow, S. J., Peterson, C. B., & Wonderlich, S. A. (2020). The role of affect in the maintenance of binge-eating disorder: Evidence from an ecological momentary assessment study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 129(4), 387–396.