Eating Disorders and Letting Go of Perfectionism

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Striving for perfection is encouraged in so many areas of our life today. Perfectionism can cause a person to become obsessed with their weight, diet, food, body image, exercise or portraying the “perfect” image to the world. A person with Anorexia can not get thin enough. A person with Orthorexia becomes obsesses with finding the perfect, clean food. The media shows us models that are society’s standard of perfection, but the images are not even real; they are airbrushed. A person with an eating disorder allows the number on the scale to dictate their mood, food intake and activities for the day.

A pioneer in the field of eating disorders, Hilde Bruch, said that people with eating disorders demonstrate “superperfection.”1 Over the years I have observed the same behaviors with my patients.

A person starts a diet thinking they will be happy when they lose weight. Most find that they are still not happy when they reach their goal or they start trying one diet after another. This starts the rollercoaster of yo-yo dieting that leads 35% of dieters to disordered eating. Taken to the extreme the dieter develops anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and becomes disconnected from their appetite and Self.

Perfectionism and the Loss of Self

Perfectionism kills authenticity. A person cannot be authentic when they are trying to portray a perfect image. They put on a mask they think will bring them love and acceptance but they lose who they are. Even if someone does love them it doesn’t feel real because they are in love with the mask, not the real authentic person.

When people live for external validation they may be persuaded to adopt other peoples’ beliefs and values. Like dieting, when a person disconnects from their internal controls they lose so much more than the ability to determine if they are physically hungry or full. They lose the connection with their appetite and themselves. When people are not connected to their Self they may take on other people’s ideals, opinions and actions to fit in because they are not connected to their own.

Consequences of Perfectionism

Perfectionism requires an “A” or 100% on anything a person tries to achieve. It must be perfect. Projects or assignments become overwhelming because your best is not good enough. As you try to make it perfect you miss deadlines or just give up and feel like a failure.

Teen with guitarPerfection is never achieved. No matter what the achievement is, it could always be better. People with perfectionism don’t feel the satisfaction of a job well done because they are immediately moving on to the next achievement. This creates a life lived in disappointment and being ungrateful for the blessings right in front of them. Gratitude is the hallmark of a happy person. With perfectionism happiness eludes them.

Perfectionism also takes a person away from the moment because their focus is on the future, when things will be perfect. They are not happy now, but they think they will be happy later. When life is lived in the future it is impossible to experience the “now.” Now is where real life is lived, not in the future. Constantly thinking about the future creates anxiety and anxiety is a common co-occurring disorder with most eating disorders.

Obsession can be Dangerous

Being obsessed with perfection creates self-hatred and feelings of never being good enough. They think if they fail they are worthless. This sets up a series of self-fulfilling prophecy.  They don’t finish projects because it’s not perfect. This propels some to not even try because they cannot do it perfectly, so it never gets done.


The way to get better with anything is to practice, practice, practice.  No one is ever their best at doing anything the first time they try. If they cannot tolerate the learning stages of a new skill they will never advance.

The pursuit of perfection can also be used to mask other feeling. Thoughts of achieving perfectionism can become a way to push away other unwanted thoughts, traumas and feelings. It can create a fantasy world so they do not feel their own feelings.

Perfectionism leads people to judging themself and others. When they do this they are never on the same level where they can really connect with other people. Either other people do not measure up to their standards or they feel less than.

Many people especially with eating disorders do not like themselves. This is made worse with perfectionism. Today there are so many people who think they are not good enough, hating themselves and living a life of negativity.

Signs of Perfectionism

In the Clinical Psychology Review, scientist reported that individuals who had recovered from eating disorders still had a high level of perfectionism. 2 I totally agree. A person in recovery needs to be watchful for the signs that they are becoming obsessed with perfectionism. Awareness is the key. Watch for:

  • Negative self-talk
  • girl-pose-344322_1280Not taking satisfaction for a job well done
  • Not being authentic
  • Anxiety
  • Not feeling loved
  • Not experiencing the now
  • Judging others and yourself
  • Being easily persuaded by others
  • Not speaking your truth
  • Not completing projects
  • Feeling like a failure

The perfectionist characteristic can be used for good if a recovered person does not allow themselves to be critical of were they are now. One of the most important things to change in recovery is to change the self-talk. Self-talk creates the relationship individuals have with themselves. As an example, Brown breaks down two modes of self-talk; perfectionism self-talk and healthy-striving self-talk. [3]3

Perfectionism self-talk: I’m fat and ugly. I cannot reach my expectations. I’m a constant failure. I’ll disappoint everyone. I always mess up. The number on the scale determines my self-worth and I am never good enough.

Healthy-striving self-talk: I am worthy of love and respect and can be accepted for my authentic self. I will invite courage, compassion, and connection into my life. This journey is for me, and I will take one step at a time. I am strong and I can do this.


Self-love and self-acceptance are incongruent with perfectionism. When a person accepts themself for their strengths and weakness they realize we are all human. We can accept our imperfections and improve one small step at a time, realizing we are trying for progress not protectionism. We acknowledge our vulnerabilities and see where we need to grow.

I believe the world is in such a mess right now because people are loving others as they love themselves. With eating disorder recovery self-love is one of the most crucial parts for a lasting recovery. When a person can let love in, they have love to give to others. They can only give what they have inside. Overcoming perfectionism means being authentic, real and expressing love.

Contributed By:  Rebecca Cooper, LMFT, LPCC, CEDS, Founder, Rebecca’s House Eating Disorder Treatment Programs, Author, Diets Don’t Work®

Rebecca Cooper, Professional Educator & Founder, is the gifted author of the Diets Don’t Work® structured program. Her creative, unique, and intuitive approach to the life threatening problem of disordered eating has profoundly changed the way this devastating illness is treated. Her extensive experience has enabled her to develop this highly successful program which internalizes new eating behaviors. It is being used by several recovery homes, therapists, eating disorder treatment programs and their clients and is 12-Step compatible. Rebecca was also the first IAEDP Chair President – Orange County and is currently an IAEDP approved Certified Eating Disorder Specialist supervisor (CEDS-S) and international speaker.


  1. Bruch, H. (1978). The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press;
  2. Bardone-Cone, A.M., Wonderlich, S.A., Frost, R.O., Bulik, C.M., Mitchell, J.E., Uppala, S., et al. (2007). Perfectionism and eating disorders: Current status and future directions. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 384–405.
  3. Brown, B. (2010). The Gift of Imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazeldon.

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 a 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.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 15, 2016. Published on