Recovering from Perfectionism

Yesterday, I wrote about my recovery from my eating disorder.

Today, I'm writing about my recovery from perfectionism. 

When I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist, people usually laugh. I get it. Modern society tends to regard perfectionism as a virtue rather than a vice. The need to get everything exactly right is enshrined in the workaholic culture of the United States, and it shows. Despite popular gripes that millennials are lazy and entitled, my generation is harder on itself than any of our predecessors. And contrary to social norms that not only accept but valorize perfectionism, the phenomenon is toxic. Really toxic. 

While some researchers posit that perfectionism is adaptive and therefore a positive motivational force, this claim is hotly debated. Plenty of psychologists have expressed alarm at this hypothesis, given that perfectionism can be linked to higher risk of depression, anorexia, and suicide. Recent research highlights perfectionistic individuals' vulnerability to self-harm and suicide in particular. The science makes sense: placing unrealistically high expectations on ourselves inevitably results in feelings of failure, which understandably have negative ramifications for our mental health.

This was certainly the case for me, at least. Many people mistakenly assume that my eating disorder stemmed from poor body image or insecurity about my looks, when in reality the psychology behind the disease is much more complex. I don't blame anyone for misunderstanding the root causes of eating disorders, because society tends to reinforce the following false equation when it comes to EDs:

low self-esteem → poor body image → eating disorder

But for perfectionistic eating disorder survivors like me, the equation looks more like this:

need for approval from self/others → desire for perfection → feelings of failure and inadequacy → anxiety and depression → unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage symptoms of anxiety and depression → ED as coping mechanism

I often find it difficult to explain that even though I obsessed over my body while I was very ill with my eating disorder, the disorder itself wasn't really about how my body looked. My ED stemmed from my anxiety about not being good enough, which produced a need for control that I attempted to satisfy through the psychopathological behaviors of under-eating and over-exercising.

This is precisely why eating disorders are so dangerous. There is no end goal at which point the disorder can be satisfied; the metric of "good enough" is forever a moving target that simply cannot be reached, and so ED victims literally die trying to meet it.

When I entered treatment for my eating disorder and began to recover from it, I also had to recover from my perfectionism. I had to heal my body intensively, but none of that work would have had any lasting effect on my health unless I simultaneously tackled the perfectionism at the root of my disordered behaviors. I remain conscious of my ED recovery on a daily basis, and I continue to dismantle my internal beliefs about perfectionism and my own worthiness (or lack thereof) every day as well. There is no doubt in my mind that these parallel paths of recovery and healing will be a lifelong practice for me, no matter how mentally and physically healthy I am at any given time. 

And so, in service of this practice, I am publicly acknowledging a recent failure of mine. I said that I was going to blog daily, and I kept it up for exactly three weeks before missing a day. Then I missed several more days. At first, I felt horrible about it. I beat myself up for failing not even a month in after setting the intention to blog every day. This perfectionistic self-flagellation has paralyzed me for the last week or so, and though the thought is only occurring to me as I write this, I think that this recent relapse of perfectionism is responsible for much of the anxiety I've felt about freelance writing over the last week or so. The reality is that I had a good reason to fail: I was stressed out, moving, and dealing with bureaucratic immigration processes in Spain. But even if I didn't, this failure doesn't mean anything about me. I am no less of a writer or a person for failing to meet my goal. 

Even though it's much easier said than done, we have to shed the shackles of perfectionism for the sake of our own health. We have to let go. For me it is a constant struggle, but I am finally getting to the point in my life where, on a good day, I can say:

I failed. So what?

Recommended Reading for Recovering Perfectionists

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Actually, anything by Brené Brown

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed