I’d like to continue this series by discussing an issue that many of us can identify with: Perfectionism. Considering that this series is aimed at mental strategies to enable easier weight loss, you might be expecting this article to proceed into a love your body for all it’s flaws essay…but that’s not where I’m going. (Not that I disagree at all with that message. You and your scars/freckles/curves ARE lovely, honey!) But I don’t want to talk about the physical, I want to talk about behavioral perfectionism.
What it is
We all know no one’s perfect, but how many of us are still trying to be? In the quest to achieve great things and work hard, it’s not uncommon to develop habits that hold us back. Perfectionism can be manifested as setting unattainable standards, being overly critical of our mistakes, and disowning our small victories and focusing only on our failures. Consider if any of these sound familiar:
- Setting a reasonable goal, but as soon as you reach it, feeling dissatisfied and setting a higher one. You might even scoff at your first goal as “too easy”. You don’t feel proud of yourself for even a moment.
- When someone congratulates you or commends you, you dismiss it as no big deal, point out the error you made, or mention the distance still to go.
- Discounting small steps in a positive direction, like taking a walk instead of watching tv, or choosing to only have 1/2 the french fries instead of the whole order. Rather than feeling proud of yourself you think, “that’s not enough to make a difference.” Or worse yet, you berate yourself “Yeah, it took you two weeks to get yourself to for a walk. Loser. You’ll never be fit and trim.”
Why Perfectionism is Problematic
Perfectionism increases distress, frustration, and anxiety. Normally, achievements boost self-esteem and makes us feel good. But to a perfectionist, few (if any) achievements bring satisfaction because there is undue focus on the perceived flaws in our performance. It’s easy to find flaws if we’re looking for them, after all. It’s distressing to always fall short, despite working very hard. Repeated feelings of failure (even while others simultaneously marvel at one’s success) lead us to feel anxious at the very thought of tackling a challenge. After all, if all of our prior attempts at succeeding with fulfilling tasks ended in frustration at not doing well enough… why keep trying?
If you’ve failed at past weight loss attempts, or lost weight and regained it, perfectionism can prevent you from even trying again.
For those trying to pursue a healthy lifestyle change, distress, frustration, and anxiety are not the emotions we need to be successful! They sap our resilience and prevent us from developing the lasting motivation to achieve a long-term goal. Weight loss is one of those goals. You can’t do it overnight or in one sprint.
Perfectionism robs us of the “good” in life. Black or white thinking dictates that if something isn’t perfect, it’s useless. By nature of very few things in this world being truly without detectable flaw, that automatically classifies an awful lot of things as useless, worthless, or unenjoyable. Operating with this schema, a person misses out on wonderful things, including other people, fulfilling experiences, and charming facets of ourselves. The changes you make in life to get lean and healthy must be enjoyable, or you won’t continue them for a lifetime. Allowing yourself to enjoy even the small things (yes, even those that aren’t flawless) will make the journey a pleasant one. Furthermore, using black or white thinking can get us hung up on foods being “good” or “bad”, which not only is damaging to our emotional relationships with food, but can lead to a boring, uninteresting diet which lacks variety.
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination. If a task has just two potential outcomes, pristine performance or utter catastrophe, that’s a lot of pressure! Facing that dilemma can keep us paralyzed in an endless stream of preparations, contemplations, and mental rehearsals (all aimed at reducing our anxiety) without ever getting started. The risk of acting is simply too daunting. And of course, the inner critic of the perfectionist is all the while complaining about the procrastination. Needless to say, that doesn’t help things. You may have felt this in work or home life scenarios, but it also affects dieting or exercise programs: I’ll start Monday/when the kids are back in school/as soon as we get home from vacation/after my foot feels better….
Perfectionism keeps you overweight by preventing behavior change. The bigger the challenge or change, the more likely we are to procrastinate. To get past this hurdle, a common tactic is to carve off a small goal or slight change in our behavior that we have higher confidence in. To a perfectionist, even if they do attain this interim goal, the modest change doesn’t feed their confidence. It just feels insignificant. Instead of feeling good for taking that one small step, which could boost self-esteem and spark us to repeat the behavior, the perfectionist experiences instead a negative outcome from doing a little positive act. That surely isn’t going to predispose a person to repeat the behavior or take the next step.
Perfectionism can lead to squandered effort on needless details. If you’re spending hours pouring over spreadsheets to ensure your meal plans contain perfectly balanced ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, and provide an ideal array of nutrients, and fit your budget constraints, and provide carbohydrates in the ideal time frames for maximal insulin sensitivity….. you’re expending a lot of unnecessary effort. This attention to detail can prevent you from focusing enough on the big picture issues which are actually keeping you from results. I’ve known plenty of people over the years who consulted me to help figure out whether the maltodextrin, whey isolate, or the waxy maize in their workout drink was preventing their weight loss, or if they should to adjust the dosages of the 12 supplements they are taking, or stop peeling their fruit and eat the peels ….. only to figure out that they just need to eat less.
Why We Cling to Perfectionism (and how to let go)
Beating perfectionism is tough, because we tend to still value this habit, even while it makes us miserable. People commonly cling to perfectionism out of an underlying fear. While we may know on the surface that being perfectionist isn’t working for us, we may still not want to let that part of ourselves go. Ask yourself the following two questions, and take a few minutes to jot down some answers.
What’s good about being a perfectionist?
What would happen if you let go of your perfectionism?
Common answers go along the lines of “My perfectionism helps me achieve more” or “If I let my perfectionism go and was just happy with whatever, I’d settle for being a failure.” See if you can uncover your own fears of what might happen if you were to be free from perfectionism. What it would look like if your fears came true? Would you sit on the couch all day? Get fewer hours of work done? Start gaining weight? Play out the worst imaginable scenario of You, Reformed Perfectionist, and the utter catastrophe that could result from not having such unattainably high standards. Most people’s fears are relatively similar:
- We’re afraid of not getting as much stuff done.
- We’re afraid of not getting stuff done as well.
- We’re afraid of not being bothered by 1 and 2. (aka we’ll be happy as a fat, lazy slob)
Fear of course is an emotion, but if it’s possible to lay it aside and look at the evidence, you might be able to reason yourself through seeing that these are not likely to actually happen. Look back at the preceding section on Why Perfectionism is Problematic and you’ll see a lot of ways too-high standards make us less productive and less effective. Taking steps to change your perfectionism habit is likely to increase your productivity, enhance the quality of life you enjoy, and in weight loss terms, help you take the right actions with enough regularity to have success.
How to break the habit
One simple way to start letting go of perfectionism is to practice giving yourself credit, even for the smallest things. Chose an extra vegetable with dinner? Awesome! Got a walk in between classes? Rock on! Nothing is too small to be celebrated. Giving yourself credit for small things (even imperfect ones) will not make you rest on your laurels, it will help provide the positive feedback to keep you motivated to keep going. Small positive acts, done many times, result in weight loss. Isolated heroics get you nowhere. I suggest that every day you give yourself credit for something you would normally have brushed off as not good enough.
Second, remember that when it comes to nutrition and exercise, pretty good, most of the time beats perfect every now and then. Don’t try to eat perfectly, just aim to eat pretty well and in the right amounts. Don’t sweat the details, just stick to the basics. You don’t have to have a complicated fitness routine with expensive gadgets…you just need to move your body and challenge it on a regular basis. Enjoyment of both food and physical activity is the most important thing – because if you love it, you’ll keep at it.
Perfectionism isn’t a character trait, it’s not something you were born with and are destined to lug around. It’s a habit. And just like all other habits preventing you from leanness, you can replace it with a healthier habit. I suggest self-compassion and appreciation.
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