For many people suffering from eating disorders ‘perfectionism’ is a central underlying issue. Healing from the demands of needing to be ‘perfect’ (perfect eater, perfect body, perfect diet) takes time and sometimes can feel elusive. The critical voice of the ED can be heard long after other symptoms of the disorder have reduced. For many, the critical voice inside that demands perfection becomes even louder the more they move away from their disordered eating patterns.
Eating disorder specialist Angie Jackson, from the Woodleaf Eating Disorder Center in San Francisco believes these feelings may be a good sign: “as painful as the internal demand for perfection can be, it also signals us that we are reaching the very root of what prompted the disorder in the first place.”
For most people these feelings of perfectionism are paired with self hatred, low self esteem and self criticism. When asked to remember when these feeling began many say early childhood, long before the eating disorder developed: “Understanding the origin of these feelings and the context in which they developed is a very important part of the healing process. Exploring this ‘critical voice’ is vital to the healing process.”
The all or nothing mentality that so afflicts ones eating can also create unrealistic expectations about recovery. Before recovery, the eating disordered person believed they must “look perfect” “diet perfectly” and now once in recovery they may similarly expect themselves to “
What many people with ED do not realize is that recovery from eating disorders is fundamentally “imperfect” and is a process, not a destination. Recovery can be feel easy some days, difficult others and just like life can be diverse and bring the unexpected. bad days and a variety of differing experiences. Just like life For many people with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia learning to be ‘imperfect” is the very core of healing. Beginning to accept with compassion the peaks and valleys recovery is where we find freedom. Beginning to allow ourselves to be human and to stop judging our every move as our worst enemy takes time and practice. Recovery does not happen overnight, and that really is okay. There is no perfect “recovery” and letting go of this illusion can be the most liberating thing of all. Edit Text
Let me give you an example: a female client in her early twenties comes to me to treat her symptoms of Bulimia. She explores her feelings, begins to identify certain triggers to her ED behaviors and greatly reduces the amount of binging and purging she had been doing. A week comes where she finds out her stepfather is terminally ill, she is laid off her job and within days she finds herself on a two day binge. She comes to therapy beating herself up and announcing she has ” failed” and had been doing so well until she “messed everything up again.” I point out to her how very stressful the last few days have been and how harshly she is beating herself up. She agrees full-heartedly and then goes on to say “Oh my GOD your right, I am beating myself up, what the hell is wrong with me!!” Now the client has found a way to beat herself up about beating herself up! Edit Text
This kind of self imposed perfectionism and self criticism is all too common. I cannot tell you how many clients I have worked with IN TREATMENT who beat themselves up over not doing recovery “perfectly”. One of the most important things for people in recovery from eating disorders to learn is that there is no perfect recovery. Recovery is an individual as well, individuals, and the process is different for everyone.
“I have to say that as a therapist who has been treating eating disorders of all kinds for years I still wish I could just magically take the self hatred and perfectionism away from my clients” Miller tells us, “I know I can’t but to watch them from outside beat themselves up for normal recovery experiences can be difficult.”
Recovery mean there will be hard days, painful days, challenging days as well as liberating, joyous and happy days. Life contains both and so will our recovery. The important thing is that we begin to learn to support ourselves in our recovery no matter where we are at. Hitting a bump in the road does not mean we should beat ourselves up, but that we need support more than ever because we are having a hard time. Opening ourselves up to the idea of self compassion is not easy, but can be done, and once we learn to accept our human-ness, our lives become brighter than ever before.