Perfectionism, Eating Problems and Hating Your Body
Do you constantly worry about your body’s shape, size, or weight?
Are you preoccupied with what and when you are eating, and this is taking over your life?
Do you restrict what you eat, or eat excessively in a way that feels out of control?
Do you do things to ensure that you don’t gain weight, such as vomit, use laxatives, or exercise excessively?
Having difficulty with eating, weight, and body image is remarkably common. Each year, approximately one million people in Australia are living with an eating disorder; 4% of the population (Deloitte Access Economics 2012).
Eating problems and body image anxiety can develop whenever people strive to achieve an ideal appearance, so it’s not surprising that both are strongly related to perfectionism (Egan, Wade and Shafran 2012). The core processes of unhelpful perfectionism – rigid personal standards, fear of failure, self-criticism, and avoidance – all amplify and perpetuate problems with eating and body image. In this article, we’ll look at how this works.
Rigid Personal Standards
Having ambitious standards for yourself is not necessarily a problem. Striving to perform your best, feeling motivated to eat nutritiously and look after your body, and feeling a sense of satisfaction from doing a tough workout can all be helpful, positive forces in your life. But when those standards become rigid rules, they can quickly become an issue.
Food rules such as having “good foods” and “bad foods”, restricting your eating to certain times of day, and strict calorie limits all feel like deprivation and take all the joy out of eating. You become stressed and anxious about something that is a required part of life. Furthermore, since the biggest predictor of bingeing is restricting what you eat, these rules can create the opposite of what is intended – chaotic eating – and strict diets almost always lead to weight gain over time.
An important part of building healthy eating habits involves creating a more flexible approach that involves letting go of strict food rules and the toxic diet culture that pervades modern society. Unpicking this can be a complex process but focusing on eating a wide range of foods to meet your nutritional needs, eating until you are comfortably full, and enjoying the experience of eating is a pathway that will ultimately reduce your distress and body-focused anxiety.
Pervasive Fear of Failure
Failure is whatever you define it to be. If you are aiming for a flat stomach, then your curves become a failure. If you aim to be a certain weight on the scales, then any number above that is a failure. If you believe you must eat a perfect no-carb diet, then eating one cracker becomes a failure. And if you keep raising these personal standards to be just out of reach, you will feel like you are failing all the time.
Many people with eating problems swing between periods of restriction and control to periods of bingeing and chaos. These swings can happen over hours, days, weeks, or even longer. Strict eating plans are rarely sustainable, yet when they inevitably end, you feel like a failure. You can become so focused on avoiding this failure that you lose sight of where you want to go. Worrying about weight and eating can consume your headspace and take you away from the things that make life wonderful such as deep connections to others and rewarding work.
Changing eating habits requires you to approach your fear in a different way. Perfectionistic approaches to setting goals can set you up for failure, so you need to choose small health-related goals that build a framework for a new kind of success and greater confidence. Eating regularly across the day to avoid bingeing, trying a wider variety of foods, focusing on finding delicious food options, and paying attention to hunger and fullness (mindful eating), are just some of the building blocks that form a lasting foundation for healthy eating.
It is shocking just how mean we can be to ourselves. It’s like we have an inner bully that is just waiting for us to fail:
“You can’t eat that – you’ll get fat”
“You are hopeless at controlling your eating”
“You look huge in those pants”
“Everyone can see your fat stomach”
“When you lose some weight, you’ll be happy”
This inner bully tells you what you can and can’t eat, how you should look and what you can and can’t do. It criticises you every day. Obsessed with your weight and shape, it offers a false promise that life will be better when you lose weight, achieve a flat stomach, or get thinner arms.
You may have believed this promise for a while now, but if you check with your experience, has this ever happened in a sustainable way? Even if you have lost lots of weight when dieting, and felt better for a while, I suspect that the moment you gained just 0.5kg or ate one extra cookie, your self-criticism came surging back.
Self-criticism is probably the most destructive aspect of eating and weight problems. Underneath this criticism lies a deep sense of shame and the stigma associated with being a higher weight. While this voice might sound like the way people have spoken to you in the past, now you are bullying yourself. This leaves you exhausted and demoralised.
An essential part of developing healthy eating habits is finding a more compassionate way of treating yourself. You need a new way of responding to this bully, because even though she is here to stay, and gets very, very loud, you don’t have to do what she says, and she doesn’t have to cause chaos and suffering in your life.
Avoidance that Causes You More Pain
Your inner bully is so nasty she makes you feel sick and on edge. The thought of failure and having to live in a body you hate is terrifying (Sandoz and DuFrene 2013). You will do anything to silence that inner voice and avoid putting on weight. Desperate, you start another diet, sign up to another “body transformation program” (read: thinly disguised diet), and work out twice a day. The problem is, what you are doing isn’t working. You still hate your body.
Maybe your history of dieting failures feels so shameful that you feel reluctant to ever try again, so you give up altogether and eat whatever you want. Living in a Western society where dietary choices are dominated by calorie-dense processed foods, you start to put on weight. This approach doesn’t work either.
All these strategies are understandable attempts to run, fight or hide from your fear of failing and the crushing self-criticism that comes with it. Working harder or giving up both have the same function – to get away from uncomfortable failure and self-criticism. Unfortunately, in the end, these approaches just reinforce your suffering; the more you struggle the worse you feel.
Finding Your Way to Normal Healthy Eating
It is possible to learn to eat regularly, explore a wide range of foods, and let go of unhelpful, fear-driven diets and specific weight goals. It’s a delicate balance of developing new habits without creating more strict rules. Building healthy normal eating habits takes time and repeated practice, and you may benefit from the professional guidance of a specialised physician, dietician, or psychologist, each of whom can play a different role in your recovery. You’ll learn to make new choices and build new habits, even when you risk failure and self-criticism. You’ll probably feel worried and uncomfortable at times – there’s simply no way around this. But think of what’s at stake. By facing your fears, you can stabilise your eating patterns and focus on other more important aspects of your life other than food, weight, and eating.
Deloitte Access Economics. 2012. Paying the price: The economic and social impact of eating orders in Australia. Australia: Deloitte Access Economics.
Egan, S., T. Wade, and R. Shafran. 2012. “The transdiagnostic process of perfectionism.” Revista De Psicopatologia Y Psicologia Clinica 17(3), 279-294.
Sandoz, E., and T. DuFrene. 2013. Living With Your Body and Other Things You Hate: How to Let Go of Your Struggle With Body Image Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
About Jennifer Kemp, MPsych(Clinical)
Jennifer is a Clinical Psychologist who works with clients who are struggling with perfectionism and the mental health problems perfectionism facilitates and maintains. Jennifer is the author of The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism. She integrates ACT, behaviour analysis, exposure, and Compassion-Focused Therapy approaches in her therapeutic and consultation work. Jennifer presents internationally on the topic of perfectionism and is available for public speaking, conferences, and workshops. Find out more at www.jenniferkemp.com.au.