Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

Do you ever feel like an impostor, like no matter how good you are at something, you just might not be enough? Are you so driven that you must accomplish everything? Or so afraid you won’t accomplish everything that you don’t even try, so you accomplish nothing and then feel bad about yourself? If so, you might be a perfectionist. A study released by the International Journal of Eating Disorders revealed there is a strong link between perfectionism and negative outcomes, such as eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the phobia of being imperfect. It is habitually setting unrealistic expectations for yourself. While setting challenging goals can be motivating and lead to success, when the expectations are unhealthy, it can be debilitating and lead to disappointment. Perfectionism can be toxic. Fear of failure can cause you to be so overly critical of your attempts that you forget to celebrate small victories or congratulate yourself for learning lessons along the way. Perfectionism also manifests itself in the opposite way. Maybe you are so worried about failing at a task that you procrastinate or just give up and never even make the attempt. Perfectionism can be both extremes, overachieving and underachieving. Perfectionistic behaviors include both things you might do and things you might avoid doing. If you are a perfectionist, here are some things you might do: excessive checking and organizing, list-making, and correcting others. If you are an overachiever, you might be more critical of yourself. While most people take pride in their accomplishments, perfectionists amplify their mistakes and have trouble noticing anything else. In addition, many people with perfectionism avoid doing certain things out of fear that they will not be able to meet their own standards. Examples of avoidance behaviors include giving up too soon, indecisiveness, avoiding tasks, and procrastinating. While most are able to bounce back from disappointment, perfectionists tend to beat themselves up more, so as a form of self-protection, perfectionists might simply avoid tasks so as not to face criticism if they fail.

Types of Perfectionism

There are three types of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism are the most common forms of perfectionism for people with an eating disorder. According to Psychology Today, self-oriented perfectionists, “Adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to attain perfection and avoid failure; engage in stringent self-evaluation.” Basically, self-oriented perfectionism is imposing unrealistic standards on yourself. Socially prescribed perfectionists, “Believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (and that they can’t live up to this); experience external pressure to be perfect, believe others evaluate them critically.” Essentially, socially prescribed perfectionists are trying to live up to other people’s standards.

Perfectionism, Eating Disorders and Social Media

Perfectionism is caused by internal stress, such as the wish to avoid failure or criticism, but there are social factors as well, like academic pressure, professional competition, and social media that contribute to harmful social comparisons. According to research conducted by Marianne Etherson, Ph.D. Candidate and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Psychology at St. John’s University, perfectionism is on the rise in young people. “People who are high in self-critical perfectionism are likely to set uncompromising standards for their appearance and compare themselves negatively with others. They can also have a tendency to feel that other people or society more generally demand perfection. This can lead to chronic concerns about others’ criticism and expectations.” Etherson’s four-week study revealed that girls who are self-critical perfectionists reported even more depressive symptoms and negative body image issues when making comparisons to others on social media. Those who were identified before the study as less self-critical were less vulnerable to the comparison of others on social media. The conclusion of the study was that the likes, comments, and follows on social media do little to increase the self-esteem of a perfectionist, and the negative comparisons will likely increase the perfectionists’ sense of inferiority.

How Can You Overcome Perfectionism?

Letting go of the comparison mindset can be difficult. We have ingrained in our minds what perfection looks like, and we are bombarded with ideas of perfection in the media but living up to a perfect ideal is impossible and takes a tremendous toll on our mental health. Stepping away from social media or being very mindful about the media you surround yourself with can be very helpful. Choosing to follow body-positive accounts and avoiding media that makes you question your level of perfection is key. Be wary of accounts that only show the highlight reel and don’t represent life accurately. Real life does not have a filter. Try to congratulate yourself along the way. Positive self-talk can help you in every task. If you were not perfect in completing a task, remind yourself that you showed up and tried your best, or you learned something great in the process. Set realistic goals and accomplish that goal one small task at a time. If fear of failure prevents you from trying, break the bigger task up into smaller steps, and be proud of yourself for every challenge you accomplish while working to complete your bigger goal.