This may very well be my last blog post before I head off on maternity leave, so I thought I’d address something I need to be reminded of myself – the absolute fallacy of perfectionism, which is a trap many people who struggle with disordered eating fall into (as well as many mothers).
When we approach our lives from the perfectionist perspective, anything that is not “perfect” is a failure. This eliminates the vast majority of how most people function from day to day from the success category. For example, it’s an important goal of mine not to snap at my son. If he’s having a very mischievous morning, and I make it through almost the whole thing using the kind of measured tone I’m aiming for, but eventually get so exasperated that I bark at him about putting his boots on, what kind of mother am I? Perfectionism suggests I have failed. A more balanced perspective notes that if I said 100 things to him, and 99 of them were on target, I’ve just gotten a very good Mama grade.
This isn’t just semantics – our emotional health and efficacy as people in the world are at stake when we choose the perspective from which to view and experience our actions. In the above example, if I take the perfectionist route and castigate myself for failing as a mother that morning, a number of nasty things will happen. First, my self esteem will tank, and so then I’ll be in a lousy mood, which means my temper will be rubbish and I’ll actually be far more vulnerable to engaging in exactly the sort of behavior I’m trying to avoid – snapping at my son.
When perfectionism is a part of disordered eating, it often plays strongly into a vicious cycle of restricting and binge eating. “I don’t know what happened, I was doing so well” is a phrase I hear often, and it usually comes from an individual who has set themselves up with an unrealistic and/or inflexible eating plan. If I’m “supposed” to eat only whole grains, and at a work breakfast, the only options are more processed, and I function best when I don’t skip breakfast, and have a bagel with cream cheese, how am I doing? Perfectionism says I’ve failed (and if you’re a failure today, you might as well go ahead and have a muffin and a Danish and…), but a more balanced perspective means I can pat myself on the back for making the best of the choices in front of me and move the heck on with my self esteem and motivation intact, far more likely to continue to be successful-ish for the rest of my day.
This is the important part, which is why it is in capital letters: YOU WILL ACTUALLY BE MORE COMPLIANT AND CONSISTENT IF YOU’RE NOT TRYING TO BE PERFECT.
Perfectionism is the enemy of success because it is demoralizing and leaves no room for learning from mistakes, or even making them. I’m not suggesting you adopt a sloppy, anything goes attitude. Goals and setting expectations for oneself are very useful tools, but only if wielded with some sanity. If my goal is to exercise 4 times a week, and I exercise 3 times, have I failed? (Hint: NO.) No. How can that be a failure if 3/4 of the time I did what I set out to do? If I reject this as a failure, I also lose the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on what made my success happen the 3/4 of the time that I did meet my goal, or to explore what the obstacles were on the day when I wasn’t as successful.
This stands out in the article I linked to above: “Wouldn’t it be good if your surgeon, or your lawyer or financial advisor, is a perfectionist?” said Thomas S. Greenspon, a psychologist and author of a recent paper on an “antidote to perfectionism,” published in Psychology in the Schools. “Actually, no. Research confirms that the most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way,” he continued. “Waiting for the surgeon to be absolutely sure the correct decision is being made could allow me to bleed to death.”
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have a baby. She’ll probably be perfect.