Perfectionism and Eating Disorders: Breaking the Cycle

Woman with binge eating disorder seated by the river

Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Representative for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center and Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation

Why does the human heart so strive for perfection? What is it about its harmony, beauty, and ethereality that so draw us? There is a tremendous drive in all of us to be better, to seek peace, to grow, to establish.

This yearning for betterment can be healthy, and in reality, drives all progress.

However, when that drive is compelled by an obsession with the ultimate – with perfection – it consumes our every thought, word and deed and in the end destroys us.

Because deep down we know that perfectionism is utterly elusive. It is ever beyond our reach. And like a vision of an oasis in the desert to a man dying of thirst, it presents itself as an attainable fulfillment of our desires, and yet at the moment we reach out our hand to seize a drink of water, it vanishes in the mists of oblivion.

Perfection, as a concept, can never be realized in the world of the senses. It is an idea, a construct, and one that must be put in its proper place so that it does not destroy us.

In the context of eating disorders, for many, the drive for perfection is a kind of drive for self-deification. God is perfect, the ultimate perfect being.

In striving for perfection, we may kid ourselves that we do so to please God or others, but in reality, we are likely seeking to glorify ourselves and sit comfortably in the pride of our works. The false narrative that perfection is achievable feeds the eating disorder.

If we continue to believe that lie, we continue down the path of our own destruction. We must come face to face with the fact that often, our struggle with perfectionism is not a function of low self-worth or self-esteem, but actually a reflection of our pride in believing that perfection is possible, believing that we can so earn the love of God and/or others.

Even if we acknowledge that perfection is not possible, we feel that at least the striving after it is enough to elevate us to a higher plane of nobility and sophistication. In all ways, perfectionism is more a reflection of the pride and arrogance of our own hearts before a perfect God.

Breaking the Cycle

So how do we break the cycle? How do we throw off the heavyweight that is the pressure to seek perfection? To begin, we must acknowledge it’s power in our individual lives, and look introspectively as to where its hold is greatest in our mind.

Woman sitting by the riverPerhaps it is in regards to body shape or size, food rituals, achievements – academic, professional, athletic or otherwise – or in others’ approval and affirmation. Where does the lure of perfectionism live most strongly within you?

Then ask yourself honestly, if you believe perfection in this area is possible. Even other people that we hold up as “perfect” in these areas are flawed in ways that may not be perceivable to those on the outside.

What would “perfection” even look like, in real terms? In an honest assessment, it is often that our vision of perfection is less the absence of any flaw or error, but rather an image of what we want most to be, a specific, rigid construct; a lie created and perpetuated by the eating disorder.

Walking through these personal questions and introspections with an eating disorder professional is key to growth. Often the pull of perfectionism is strong and can only be broken through long and hard work with a clinician or therapist, an accountability partner, who can continuously help dispel the myths.

Lastly, seek peace, not perfection. A loving God never demands perfection from His children. He accepts us as we are. If the creator of the universe can love in such an unconditional way, despite seeing the darkest parts of our minds and hearts, how can we not do so for ourselves?

Why do we continue to hold ourselves to a standard that even our creator does not? While here on this earth, we are to seek peace and reconciliation within ourselves first.

A taming of the will toward perfectionism and earning God’s love, and an acceptance of where we are on our specific journey. That acceptance includes a sigh of relief that perfection is not required.

Acceptance and peace comes from the recognition that the road to recovery and through life is full of pitfalls and triumphs, grave errors and magnificent victories. All of these reasons, all of these twists build reliance on God and who He is, and prove time and again that perfection is not a worthy goal, but acceptance and trust in Him truly is.

Prayer and meditation, seeking God through His word, and resting in the utter majesty of grace is the hammer that breaks the chains of perfectionism.

Woman with body imageHe whispers to us: “Dear child, you are my joy and my treasure. I delight in you just the way you are, no matter how life or people have hurt you.

No matter how choices, circumstances or challenges have changed you. I know your heart, and I tell you: rest in me. Let it go. I demand no perfection. I desire to hold you.

I’ve saved you – there is nothing you can do to earn my love, so there is nothing you can do to lose it. Breathe. Rest. My dear child, I love you.

Kirsten+Haglund+HeadshotAbout the author: Kirsten Haglund continues to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on numerous college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders. She is also the Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on October 20, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 20, 2017.
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