Stop Binge Eating
 
12th February 2021
 

How to Cope with Perfectionism

 
Learn how perfectionism is linked to weight concerns, restrictive dieting and overeating. Discover simple tips to tackle perfectionism and how to reduce perfectionistic thoughts.

Perfectionism is broadly when anything short of perfection seems unacceptable. This is different from having high standards as perfectionism tends to make it more difficult for you to reach your goals.
People with perfectionism tend to:
  • Have standards that are impossible or nearly impossible to meet.
  • Standards that are so high to interfere with performance, rather than being helpful.
  • Commonly linked with anxiety, low mood or depression.
There are different types of perfectionism (you can have more than one type):

A mistake-fearer: Equating mistakes with failure. This is linked with social anxiety and fear of judgement.

An over-aimer: Setting high expectations for yourself and not meeting those standards means you think you are a failure.

An over-checker: Feeling a need to check things or repeat things multiple times. This can also be found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

An over-organiser: Overly worried about neatness, order and organisation, to the detriment of getting things done. Might be rigid and inflexible about how things are done.

A social-worrier: Feeling pressure from others to perform perfectly, which can be linked shyness and social anxiety.
Where does perfectionism come from?
  • Often perfectionism stems from a past where parents, carers or even teachers had unrealistic expectations are were overly critical when standards were not met.
  • Some scientists also believe that there is a genetic component, where overly critical input may have more effect on perfectionism in a child with a genetic predisposition to perfectionism.
  • It also comes from society which often rewards doing well at school or looking conventionally attractive. If you were (or are) regularly punished, criticised, teased or told off for doing certain things, it is likely that you will form beliefs about it being particularly important to be a certain way.
  • You also are likely to have copied your primary carers to some extent as a child so if the people closest to you were perfectionists, it is possible to pick up some of the tendencies.
  • Constantly seeing ‘perfect’ influencers on social media or people in the media can also gradually form beliefs that we should look that way to be acceptable.
  • Remember, although interesting, it doesn’t really matter who is to ‘blame’ as we can focus on doing something about it.
What is wrong with having high standards?
Nothing is wrong with having high standards. It is when these standards become unrealistic and begin to actually impede achievement that they can become an issue.
 
Whether it is perfectionism depends on:
  1. Can the aim actually be achieved?
  2. Is it true that the aim must be achieved?
  3. On balance, is this aim helping you or hindering you?
  4. Can you be flexible with this aim?
Perfectionism can be present in all aspects of life including work, writing, speaking, organisation, achievement, appearance and health behaviour including eating and weight loss strategies.
 
How perfectionism can influence eating and body issues
  • Often people have beliefs such as ‘if I weight xkg, I am fat’, this type of thought is perfectionistic.
  • Being very rigid about eating or exercise because of a worry about weight is also a type of perfectionism.
  • Perfectionism is strongly linked to disordered eating, and links to rigid and inflexible rules about food.
  • Some people may be so preoccupied with their weight or a part of their body that they struggle to think about anything else.
Perfectionism and “all or nothing” thinking about food and weight
  • All or nothing thinking is common in people with perfectionistic tendencies and is linked to having excessively high standards, which are incredibly difficult or even impossible to sustain, for example: “If I don’t stick to my diet, I’m a failure, if I eat one biscuit, I may as well eat them all.”
  • Our culture promotes thinness and discriminates non-thinness. As children, we are teased for being ‘bigger’ than other children and this does not stop as adults.
  • Foods are often labelled good (salad) or bad (biscuits) and we might say we have had ‘a good day’ if we have avoided our forbidden food list and we may think that we have ‘failed’ if we think we have eaten too many biscuits.
How perfectionism links to dieting
 
Dieters: Restrict their food intake to control weight gain.
 
Non-dieters: Eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
 
Fullness or satiety acts as a stop mechanism for non-dieters. For dieters, artificial diet boundaries are created as a ‘stop’ mechanism. If these are broken then the diet is broken and there is no ‘stop-eating’ mechanism left. Therefore, it is easy for dieter to eat until they are overfull, if they have ‘broken’ their diet, often by eating foods that are usually ‘forbidden’. Biology keeps this cycle going, if we restrict our intake too much then the body is ‘screaming’ at us to eat more and the body’s natural defence to being starved is to overeat.
 
It is incredibly difficult to overcome the body’s drive to fight severe restriction and it requires a lot of self-control. There are many things that convince us to abandon this self-control including alcohol, peer-pressure, low mood and anxiety. It has been suggested that it is easy to excessively focus on food to avoid self-awareness or feeling bad about ourselves. Because we then feel bad about losing self-control, we feel bad about ourselves and this then causes another restriction and then overeating cycle.
 
The following are common perfectionistic thoughts about eating [feel free to replace biscuit with any other foods], if you have these thoughts then you may benefit from tackling perfectionism using the exercises below:
  • Some foods are banned, some are allowed
  • If I break my diet, I have failed
  • If I eat one biscuit, I may as well eat them all
  • If I eat a biscuit, I will put on weight
  • If I allow myself a biscuit, I will lose control
  • I feel fat, so I’m fat
  • If I put on weight, I will put on loads of weight
  • I have to exercise after eating or I’ll be fat
  • I can only be happy if I’m thin
Behaviours that keep perfectionistic thoughts going:
  • Frequent weighing and body-checking in the mirror
  • Wearing clothes that are too small, which can lead to feeling bigger than you are
  • Wearing clothes to cover certain parts of your body
  • Avoiding social contact because you are worried about your weight
  • Extreme dieting behaviours
  • Regularly comparing your appearance to that of other people
Practical steps to tackle perfectionistic beliefs
  • Are you only comparing yourself to some people? We have a tendency to be much more receptive to facts that confirm are beliefs, even if those beliefs cause us harm. Can you look again with fresh eyes and make a more balanced comparison?
  • Check the evidence. Are you really as overweight as you think you are? Remember, being active and not-smoking are equally, if not more, important than your weight for your health.
  • Look back at photos of yourself. How does the picture compare with how you felt at the time? Most of our judgements are in our mind and are not necessarily ‘true’. Can you be more realistic about yourself now?
  • Find something positive about your body shape. Even if you lost weight, you would still have the same body shape. Try and look at your shape and find something positive. This may feel unusual at first but gets easier with practice.
  • You can also look at people who are a similar size to you and find positive things about them. This will help you make sensible comparisons, rather than comparing yourself to social media influencers, actresses or models who are probably being photographed on their ‘best’ day and you are looking at them while you are in your everyday.
  • Try an experiment. If you worry about going out in a certain type of clothes, short sleeves for example, you could try it and see what happens. It is unlikely to be as bad as you fear and probably nobody else will even notice. You can then gradually try more and more experiments to get comfortable with the things you are worried about.
  • If you are a regular weigher, try weighing yourself less. Constant weighing adds to weight-related anxiety that feeds perfectionism. Many people weigh themselves monthly or less often, which can help with anxiety.
  • Only look in the mirror when you have to, and briefly, such as when you are about to leave the house for work. Use the mirror to check that you are appropriately dressed and not to dwell on your looks.
How to change perfectionistic thoughts
  1. Write down the perfectionistic thoughts, once you start noticing these, it gets easier to spot them. You could start by looking for the diet-related ones listed above.
  2. Write an alternative thought. Think of what a good friend might say about your situation. They might have already said it!
  3. Write down the pros and cons of each thought for any aspect of your life.
  4. Decide on a more realistic version of the situation.
Here is an example:
  1. Thought: “If I eat one biscuit, I will eat the whole packet.”
  2. If I eat one biscuit, I can choose to stop eating biscuits. Only I decide if I eat more biscuits. Only I put biscuits into my mouth.
  3. Pro: If I restrict my biscuit eating then I might lose weight. Con: If I could only eat one biscuit then I would no longer need to fear biscuits and probably won’t want them as much.
  4. Perhaps I could try eating one biscuit. I know I have eaten just one biscuit before so I can do it again.

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Disclaimer

The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.