Letting Go of Perfectionism
Author Brene Brown has written an amazing book entitled The Gifts of Imperfection. She goes through 12 guideposts on how to start living a wholehearted life, including how to cultivate compassion for ourselves and begin to let go of perfectionism due to the fact that among those diagnosed with eating disorders, perfectionism is a highly noted characteristic. It runs rampant in our lives, tells us what is good and not good, and makes us believe that the number on the scale determines our worth; it even causes some to believe they have to be a perfectionist at their eating disorder.
In learning to discover ourselves without the eating disorder, we have to start building our whole hearted self, including being able to show ourselves some self-compassion, which can be difficult after abusing ourselves for so many years. Anna Quindlen was quoted, "The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." Embracing our story and becoming our true authentic self is an exhilarating experience. As the suffocation of the eating disorder lifts more and more, you, too, will understand.
Perfectionism can be toxic and poisonous. It leads to depression, anxiety, addiction, and what Brown terms as "life paralysis." Life paralysis is missing out on all the opportunities, dreams, and other events/goals because of the fear of being imperfect or failing. This all comes together to determine your self-worth, which of course is a distorted line of thinking and leaves you missing out on this amazing thing called LIFE!
Brown notes there is a definite difference between healthy striving and perfectionism. The following myths will most likely sound very much like the negative tape running over and over in your head, especially at the height of your disorder.
-Perfectionism is not being the best at everything, not looking or acting perfect, nor does it foster growth. Rather, it works as a "twenty-ton" shield that we believe protects us but actually holds us back from making any type of forward process.
-The core of perfectionism is trying to earn approval and acceptance, which does not reinforce self-improvement.
This is one of the most common themes found among those with eating disorders. Many are raised or conditioned feeling as though they need to be the best, be people pleasers, and need acceptance all while their self-worth is defined merely by their achievements and what others think of them.
Adversely, Brown came up with her own definitions/guidelines of perfectionism:
-It is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fields this primary thought. Essentially, if you look beautiful, make great achievements, and do everything perfectly, it minimizes the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.
-Perfectionism is self-destructive because there is no such thing as "perfect." This unattainable goal is based off illusive perception, and no matter how many awards, no matter what the scale says, you cannot control one's perception. This is a perfect opportunity to practice some self-compassion.
-Due to the fact that we experience constant shame, judgment, and blame, especially in the midst of our eating disorders, perfection becomes addictive. The false belief that if we were perfect enough we would be able to do everything right leaves us not knowing how to deal with such emotions. This faulty belief encompasses a major root of the eating disorder, because it is wrapped up tightly in shame, judgment, and blame.
-Another common trait among people suffering from an eating disorder is the constant negative voice telling them that "I'll never be good enough." Because they cannot reach such unattainable expectations, feelings of shame and judgment are too much to handle leading to self-blame, resulting in the management of such strong emotions through using the eating disorder.
Beginning to overcome perfectionism, as we disconnect from the eating disorder self and begin to build our authentic identity, we need to be able to identify, understand, and acknowledge our vulnerabilities, including the shame and judgment we carry. In reaction, we need to start allowing for more self-compassion and the process begins with accepting our imperfections. Within this practice, we begin to find courage, compassion, and connection. This is not an easy process as perfectionism and vulnerability often lead to the chronic compulsiveness and addiction the eating disorder imprisoned us with. It's not a one-step magical process, but by taking one small step at a time and working on the negative tape of thoughts running through your mind, you begin breaking through the trap of perfectionism.
Brown breaks down two examples of self-talk: perfectionism self-talk and healthy-striving self-talk.
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 it's 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.
This is not an instantaneous process, but nothing in recovery is. You'll find it's all part of the journey.
When Brown further researched healing perfectionism, she discovered that many women spoke of their imperfections honestly without shame and fear. They acknowledged they were doing the best they could and slowed the practice of judgment. A strong root of courage, compassion, and connection was at the core of how they treated themselves. Once again, these can be difficult things to begin to practice: start slowly, one day at a time, and take baby steps if need be. You are doing the best you can!
Self-compassion is at the root of beginning to accept ourselves and being able to live an authentic and wholehearted life. Dr. Kristin Neff, who specializes in research on self-compassion, divides it into three parts:
Self-kindness: Feel our feelings and accept them rather than punish ourselves with inadequacy and beat ourselves up with self-criticism.
Common humanity: Suffering and inadequacy are a shared human experience-it's not just you! Give yourself a break because nobody is perfect. That's what makes us all authentic and unique.
Mindfulness: Similar to the DBT practice, we take a balanced approach to all of our emotions, but we don't get stuck in the sand trap. We let ourselves feel our emotions, but let them run through our "Teflon" mind, so we don't get stuck in a field of negativity.
At the end of each chapter of Brown's Gifts of Imperfection, she uses the acronym DIG, get Deliberate, get Inspired, and get Going! So DIG deep into imperfection and self-compassion:
Deliberate: Brown suggests taking Dr. Neff's Self-Compassionate scale to help you begin to understand where you are at in terms of compassion, self-kindness, mindfulness, etc. This test can be found at www.self-compassion.org.
Inspired: Take off the mask. The process of recovery is learning to be your authentic self, real and imperfect, letting go of all control. "Imperfections are not inadequacies, they are reminders that we're all in this together." You are not alone, and it's often those vulnerable moments that bring us closer together.
Going: Simply stated, find a mantra for yourself that opens each day up to self-compassion. You are doing the best you can each day, slips or no slips. "Today, I'm going to believe that showing up is just enough."Christopher K. Germer once said, "A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life." Moving forward in recovery can be scary, difficult, and hard. We often want to reach back into what we know is controlled and seemingly comfortable. Learning to treat ourselves with compassion, surrendering vicious routines, and just letting go can change the entire path or the rest of your life. Go DIG!
"The past has no power over the present moment."-Eckhart Tolle
Brown, B. (2010). The Gift ofImperfection. Center City, MN: Hazeldon.