The Link Between Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

Perfectionism often plays a main role in the development of an eating disorder. The two feed off one another in a continuous perpetuation of all-or-nothing thinking, extreme fear of failure, and a constant drive for absolute success and accomplishment. It is important to note the difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism – it is okay to have goals and be determined to reach them; when these goals are unrealistic and simply unachievable through typical means, perfectionism swoops in and takes hold of this vulnerability.

When people are in eating disorder recovery, one of the most prominent challenges they face is learning how to navigate giving up control over food and their bodies. When this happens, it makes sense that they may look to control other areas of their lives, such as academics, careers, hobbies, or other aspects of life. This is where perfectionism comes into play.

What Causes Perfectionism?

Perfectionism can come from several biological, social, and psychological factors. To start, some people have general personality traits or characteristics that may encompass perfectionism or make someone more susceptible to employing perfectionism in their later lives. Additionally, childhood experiences can significantly impact one later development of perfectionistic tendencies or behaviors. These experiences can include witnessing parents’ behavior, adverse childhood experiences, cultural expectations, and trauma. Psychological factors include these experiences residing as low self-esteem, an overwhelming fear of failure, and feelings of unworthiness, shame, and guilt if perfection is not attained. Ultimately, many things can result in maladaptive perfectionism; multiple factors often influence the development of this way of thinking and living.

Where Do We See Perfectionism In Eating Disorders?

Someone struggling with an eating disorder may depict perfectionistic tendencies in the following ways:

  • Food Rules and Food Rituals: People with eating disorders may have rigid rules and attitudes regarding eating. If they break these rules, they may experience feelings of guilt, shame, or unworthiness. Therefore, they may feel like they need to be “perfect” at managing these strict beliefs with food.
  • Compulsive/Over-Exercise: Perfectionism can manifest in a preoccupation with exercise. People may want to strive for the “perfect body” through intense workouts or push themselves too hard when exercising.
  • Fear Of Body Changing: Perfectionism can cause an obsessive concentration on one’s body weight, size, and shape. Therefore, people with eating disorders may have an intense fear of their body changing, resulting in atypical eating patterns and behaviors.

What Can I Do To Begin To Challenge Perfectionism?

It may be helpful to begin recognizing when we engage in all-or-nothing thinking regarding food and body. Identifying this way of thinking comes first, and being able to challenge it comes next. Encouraging ourselves to think in shades of gray or to check the facts may allow us to refute these black-and-white thinking patterns. Once we can do this, we may find ourselves more flexible and adaptable in how we approach eating.

Additionally, it is important to practice self-compassion. When we engage with perfectionism, we may frequently participate in negative self-talk and allow the inner critic voice to take hold of our thoughts. Reminding ourselves that perfection doesn’t exist and that we can give ourselves grace may increase positive feelings of self-worth and mitigate feelings of internal inadequacy.

At BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™, we offer two FREE Virtual Eating Disorder Support Groups open to individuals seeking help and family and loved ones. The group provides a supportive forum where members can explore issues, including ambivalence about engaging in treatment, recovery, resources, and treatment options, and knowing when and how to take the next steps toward making change. RSVP for our next group here.  

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This post was written by BALANCE Clinical Intern, Sajel Jani (she/her).

Sajel Jani is currently in her final year of Columbia University’s MSW program and holds a B.A. in Psychology from The College of New Jersey. Her passion lies in supporting clients on their eating disorder recovery journey, including finding confidence, self-empowerment, and what is considered healthy for them. Sajel is an active fighter against diet culture on social media and strives to spread messages of self-love and acceptance. Ultimately, she wants to pursue a career where she can help those struggling with an eating disorder discover the life they deserve without an eating disorder. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with loved ones, going for walks, and reading. Sajel is excited and eager to learn from the talented staff at BALANCE and aid clients in their journeys toward recovery.

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