Eating disorders and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand. While there may not necessarily be a cause-effect relationship, there are enough similarities to make the two vulnerable to one another. The perfectionist may find another level of self-refinement in disordered eating, which can, without caution, become an eating disorder. And people with eating disorders are usually driven by perfectionistic motives and sustained by perfectionistic behaviors.
The Model of Perfection: Traits of Perfectionism
You know perfection is unrealistic and unattainable. You seek it anyway. (After all, who’s writing the rules?)
You may even know that your pursuit of the impossible is creating a downward spiral in your life.
And yet, if you have a perfectionistic personality, you may know nothing else. The fear of failure is more powerful than the desire for success, even though absolute “success” is the only acceptable end-game.
And that fine line makes all the difference in the world.
Perfectionists are notorious for setting out-of-reach goals and being unsatisfied unless they accomplish them…perfectly. There is no margin for error, no straying from the direct course to the finish line.
It makes sense, then, that perfectionists are also highly critical. They hold themselves to impossible standards, so they inevitably leak their criticism and judgment onto others.
As you will see, it’s no surprise that eating disorders and perfectionism are often bedfellows.
Here are some of the ways perfectionism presents itself:
- All-or-nothing thinking: You achieve your goals perfectly, or you have failed. There’s no in-between, no “in-it-for-the-journey.” Life is black-and-white, pass-or-fail.
- Being highly critical: You can’t achieve perfection if you let mistakes slide, so you always have to be on guard. And being critical of yourself means you can’t help but be critical of others.
- Unrealistic standards: Unlike high achievers, who strive for lofty goals and self-improvement, you set goals that aren’t realistic or healthy to achieve.
- Procrastination: If you can’t do it perfectly, you might as well not even start.
- Fear of failure: Because you are locked into all-or-nothing thinking and achievement-based self-worth, not reaching your goals equates to pervasive failure. And the fear of failure is always lurking.
- Inability to accept feedback or constructive criticism: If your thinking is locked into a rigid paradigm, you won’t welcome outside input. Even the most informed and well-intended input will be perceived as yet another person who doesn’t “get” you.
- Negative response to unmet goals: Because unmet goals are about failure and not learning or improving, you are likely to berate yourself. You are more likely to feel excessive stress, even anxiety, depression, and the inability to move on. (And this negative response becomes fuel for the development and perpetuation of eating disorders.)
- Low self-esteem: Ironically, perfectionism, by its very definition and impossibility, will leave you steeped in failure. And how can you possibly have a healthy self-esteem if you are always failing?
But what leads a person toward perfectionism in the first place? Why are some people able to be high achievers, learning and rebounding from setbacks, while others fall into the trap of perfectionism?
Many of the causes of perfectionism also underlie eating disorders:
- Fear of judgment or disapproval from others
- Poor self-esteem
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Childhood/upbringing with high expectations, rigidity, and/or abuse
- Critical or shaming parents
- Performance-motivated self-worth (your achievements equal your value)
- Mental health disorders with perfectionistic behaviors (e.g. obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- Need for control
Perfectionism and Eating Disorders: How They Overlap
Consider the next two sentences:
- Perfectionists set irrational goals and are harshly self-critical in striving to conform to their own self-imposed standards or the standards of others.
- People with anorexia or bulimia tend to be competitive and hold themselves to the highest, most rigid, comparative standards. They also see themselves as lacking in those comparisons.
When you see these two realities next to one another, the similarities are startlingly clear. The t-shirt mantra for both (perfectionism and eating disorders) could easily be Never good enough.
Let’s zero in on the misguided perfectionistic notion that achievement equals self-worth.
The role of body image in eating disorders and perfectionism
In the world of body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders, the translation is just a small step in semantics. Replace “achievement” with “body image,” and you have the guiding principle for so many who suffer from eating disorders: Body image equals self-worth.
While there are many types of eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are good focal points of conversation. They are especially relevant to the extremes in thinking and behavior that define perfectionism and eating disorders and the link between them.
Anorexia and bulimia are both responses to external standards. Culture, media, parental/familial/peer expectations – they all become standards of reckoning for those who are vulnerable.
Remember the causes of perfectionism above? They apply to eating disorders and body image too.
In the case of anorexia, the relationship with food and its deprivation is so rigidly maintained that “perfectionism” is the only sustainable path. The same goes for the relationship with exercise.
The goal, of course, is uncompromising thinness. And the standard need not be based in reality, let alone in health.
Think for a moment how the deprivation wrought from such a poor body image ends up wielding such pervasive power in the life of someone with anorexia. What’s deemed “perfect” is really a cruel illusion. And yet, it controls – and steals – everything.
Perfectionism and the athlete
Perhaps there’s a “yeah, but” in the back of your mind. Perfectionism and eating disorders in the “average” person are one thing. But what about perfectionism and eating disorders in athletes, who “have to be” perfect?
Sports can become a dangerous hiding place for perfectionism and eating disorders, especially as sports become more high-stakes.
The difference between a gold and silver medal can be a microsecond in speed…or a micro-perception in judging. More and more there is less and less room for error or even the slightest imperfection.
Athletes are conditioned to be self-driven, to motivate and discipline from within.
But everything about the life of an athlete – the countless hours of practice, the pursuit of flawlessness, the unwavering focus – feeds right into perfectionism. And the shaving of seconds often goes hand-in-hand with the shaving of pounds.
And nowhere is that more true than in visually judged sports like gymnastics and ice skating. You need to fly through the air? Someone else has to lift and catch you?
Weighty concerns, indeed. These are pragmatic as well as aesthetic concerns.
And if haters are going to flood the airwaves with catty commentary about Simone Biles’s hair during the Olympics, imagine their other opinions!
So the athlete, while working to remain laser-focused on unimaginable-but-achievable (because somebody has to win) goals, isn’t impervious to external expectations.
And therein lies the commonality. Whether or not you’re an athlete or a celebrity, the quest for perfection will leave no stone unturned. And the standards for self-evaluation are always in front of you, even if they are also within you.
The motivation may be different for athletes than for non-athletes, but the groundwork has been laid by the very nature of the game. Order. Discipline. Rigidity. “Do it again. Again. And again.”
And let’s not forget that athletes train to become used to pain. They learn to fall from the beginning. Hard ice. Balance beams. A mob of defensive linemen. They suck it up physically and emotionally.
(Perhaps there is no better cinematographic example of this expectation than Tom Hanks’s tear-shaming rant in A League of Their Own.)
If an athlete can handle all that, how much worse can manipulation of food and weight be?
Watching for eating disorders
It’s important to remember that eating disorders are complex mental health disorders. And, while disordered eating isn’t something to be ignored or left untreated, it’s not the same as a diagnosable eating disorder.
It’s also important to distinguish between a propensity for high achievement and a tendency toward perfectionism. The distinction may seem subtle on the surface, but their execution and goals are very different.
Finally, while eating disorders and perfectionism have commonalities, one doesn’t necessarily predict the other.
Sure, they may contain the elements of a perfect storm. But, I have some good news! Having information and resources gives you the ability to prevent it.