Perfectionism and Eating Disorders: Understanding the Connection

Perfectionism and Eating Disorders: Understanding the Connection

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In our efforts to improve ourselves, overcome adversity, and realize our full potential, many of us can’t help but strive for perfection. However, healthy, self-motivating perfectionism has nothing to do with obsessing about our work, body image, exercise, or relationships.

There is a stronger connection between perfectionism and eating disorders than most assume. But what does it mean to strive for perfection? And why is perfectionism dangerous?

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality characteristic described as a tendency to have excessively high expectations for oneself.

Perfectionists set unreasonably high standards for themselves. As a result, they are greatly concerned about making mistakes. They have a great need for acceptance and validation from others.

If you are a perfectionist, you may be too critical of your performance, appearance, talents, IQ, and so on, obsessing about your goals.

The difference between unhealthy perfectionism and healthy striving to be your best self is that a fear of failure drives unhealthy perfectionism. In contrast, healthy striving for excellence is driven by a desire to succeed.

According to experts, there are three types of perfectionists:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists
  • Other-oriented perfectionists
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists

No matter what kind of perfectionist you may be, unhealthy perfectionism can be self-destructive and dangerous.

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Why is Perfectionism Dangerous?

If you strive for perfection, you may suffer from an intense fear of making mistakes. Your fear of failure and mistakes can lead to procrastination.

People afraid of failing often use procrastination to deal with stress because it lets them avoid facing negative thoughts about their abilities.

Also, you might have imposter syndrome and worry that people will judge your work and think you are a fake.

Because you want to be the best at everything you do, you only feel like you’re worth something when you are successful. If are a high achiever and a perfectionist, your productivity may suffer since you will struggle to get things done because you will only accept perfection. This can lead to stress and burnout.

Also, social media may make you want to filter your life and show the world the “perfect” version of you to get validation. You may also compare your life to the lives of others, which often look perfect. This can hurt your sense of self-worth because it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you compare yourself to others.

Perfectionism is often linked to anxiety, depression, and physical health problems. Moreover, recent research shows a connection between perfectionism and eating disorders. People afraid of making mistakes are more likely to develop eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

What Are the Warning Signs of Perfectionism?

Because everyone is unique, perfectionism may manifest differently in each individual. Still, some common behavior patterns indicate you may be a perfectionist. They may include the following:

  • Excessive concern over making mistakes
  • Being pushed by the fear of failure
  • Anxiety
  • Seeking validation and reassurance
  • Procrastination
  • Being highly critical
  • Poor decision-making
  • Permanent feelings of guilt
  • Focusing only on results
  • “All-or-nothing” thinking
  • Low self-esteem
  • Judging yourself and others
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Believing you are inadequate
Perfectionism woman relaxing at the beach
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Perfectionism and Maintaining Control

Perfectionism may be associated with an excessive need for control. We are hardwired to want to be in charge of our lives. As a result, we need to know what’s coming up to plan, predict, and keep things under control.

Having control over our lives can help us feel more independent and confident. This makes us feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, if you are a perfectionist, feeling like you don’t have control over things in your life may make you anxious and stressed out.

But, in reality, we have little or no influence over most aspects of our lives. If you have a strong need to be in charge, you might feel stuck because you over-plan, overthink, and overdo.

Everyone has moments of rumination. There is, however, a distinction between thinking about situations that can be dealt with and dwelling on things in your life over which you have no control. Perfectionism is typically connected with such ruminations.

What is the Connection Between Perfectionism and Eating Disorders?

It is a common misconception that eating disorders are limited to teenage girls with body image issues. Eating disorders can affect adult women and men. Many are high-achieving, highly-driven professionals and perfectionists who struggle to manage these traits, which can contribute to eating disorders.

High-achieving professionals are often passionate and committed to excellence. Yet, they are constantly dissatisfied—with their bodies, performances, relationships, and lives. 

These individuals are commonly prone to “all-or-nothing” thinking. They often compare themselves to others and struggle with body image issues, so they are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders.

According to research on the relationship between perfectionism and eating disorders, individuals with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating had considerably more excellent perfectionism qualities than those in the control groups.

Compensating for a Loss of Self

Because you continuously try to be flawless and portray yourself as such, perfectionism stops you from being your authentic self. Moreover, perfectionism often means living for external validation and acceptance from others.

When you try to get approval and validation from other people, you might take on their values and beliefs, become a people-pleaser, and lose touch with who you really are.

Letting Go of the Need to Be Perfect

Recognizing your maladaptive perfectionism is the first step toward letting go of your need to be perfect and treating yourself with more self-compassion and self-love.

Here are a few guidelines to get you started:

  • Stop comparing yourself to others.
  • Try to learn from your mistakes.
  • Praise yourself for trying and not obsessing over perfection.
  • Challenge your “all-or-nothing” or “black-or-white” thoughts.
  • Give yourself a break and relax whenever possible.
  • Practice affirmations
  • Practice setting smaller, achievable goals.

If you still struggle to let go of perfectionism, seeking support from a life coach can make a huge impact. Coaching can be a good place to look at your beliefs, challenge self-limiting ways of thinking, and learn how to stop trying to be perfect.

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