Perfectionism and Eating

05/29/2015 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016


"If I'm wearing clothes, the laundry isn't done!"

We all burst out laughing at the absurdity -- and the stinging truth -- in this statement made by a participant in one of our Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Retreats. She was explaining how hard she is on herself and how impossibly high her standards are for "deserving" a break. She realized that she was often eating because she couldn't give herself "permission" to just relax until everything was finished to perfection. And of course, it never would be!

Learning to recognize and manage perfectionism was also a turning point in my personal recovery from the "eat-repent-repeat" cycle. 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).
  • Have difficulty finishing projects (and sometimes, articles).

Bottom line: Expecting yourself and others to be perfect ensures that you'll never be happy.

Why Does Perfectionism Cause Problems with Eating?

There are many other ways that perfectionism can interfere with a healthy relationship with food. Some examples:

  • 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).
  • If you also struggle with "all or nothing" thinking (as many people who struggle with food do), you might binge when you 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.

Good Enough

Here are some messages straight out of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat to help you make the transition from "too perfect" to "good enough."

  • Perfection isn't possible, and fortunately, it isn't necessary.
  • Don't make new rules like, "Only eat when you're hungry" or "Stop eating when you're full." Hunger and fullness are helpful tools, not rules.
  • Let go of the need to get it right and, instead, approach eating with flexibility and self-acceptance.
  • Balance eating for nourishment with eating for enjoyment.
  • Think direction, not perfection.
  • Be willing to make mistakes since they are an opportunity for learning and growth.

Each of us is perfectly imperfect so we just need to learn how to get out of our own way!

Michelle May, M.D. is the CEO of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training and the author of the book series, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.