Stop the Hidden Perfectionist Overeating Loop | TMOHP Episode 036

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” - Anne Lamott

If you’re going to untangle your relationship with food, you’re going to find yourself revisiting and reframing perfectionism because struggles with overeating and emotional eating are intertwined with struggles with perfectionism. Some of this perfectionism is so systemically and deeply rooted that you might not be aware of it. 

In this episode, I’m looking at the perfectionism trap and the way it can sabotage your efforts to change your eating and I’m sharing simple steps that you can take to move off the hamster wheel of perfectionism and overeating. Here’s the good news. No one EVER created peace with food by being perfect. And this means you don’t have to hold yourself to an unattainable standard of perfection either.

What I cover in this episode:

  • How perfectionism is baked into health, wellness, and weight loss programs
  • How perfection keeps you stuck and overeating
  • Ways to break free from perfectionism

Featured on the show:

Episode Transcript

I’ve talked about perfectionism before in this podcast. In fact, episode 11  is actually all about how perfectionism can trigger emotional eating and overeating. But perfectionism is a stealthy little devil and there is more to talk about. And I’m sure we’ll be talking about it again in the very near future, so stay tuned. 

When it comes to perfectionism, there’s SO much to untangle.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, calls perfectionism “the voice of the oppressor.”

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” - Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird  

If you know Anne Lamott, you know that the shitty first draft is how she encourages writers to get started, to simply begin writing, to get past themselves and their fears and their perfectionism so that they can get into ACTION. Because you have to be in action to get anywhere, and to move forward, to learn and to grow.

If you’re in Your Missing Peace you are very familiar with Anne Lamott’s concept of shitty first drafts. Because we use it constantly. Because it’s only when you find strategies to get past internalized - and often unrecognized - perfectionism, that you can transform your relationship with food - and your actual eating habits - into something better. Something that works FOR YOU.

Oppressive systems benefit from rigid standards of perfectionism. Most of us didn’t grow up to value our messiness, our perfectly human imperfectness, and the complete normalness of making mistakes, taking missteps, and learning and growing as we do. Many of us have come to have a voice in our head that seems to believe that it’s possible to live and to succeed without any of the mess. To be perfect all the time. Which of course isn’t true.

But think for a moment about the thoughts you might have about how you “should” eat and how perfectionism is baked into so many plans that say they are about health and wellness. 

The Whole30 program tells you that 30 days of 100% compliance are required. If you slip up, the “rules” say you have to start completely over. Other plans have good foods and bad foods. There are days when you’re “on plan” and “cheat days.” And who hasn’t been on some kind of weight loss plan and “screwed up” (air quotes) so then felt like they ruined it and then ate all the chips because they’re going to have to “start over on Monday.”

When it comes to your relationship with food, the idea that you “should” be able to get it “perfect” (whatever this is) is everywhere.

And so I’m going to suggest that you can only benefit from strengthening your “antiperfectionist” muscles. The muscles (really, the thoughts and beliefs) that encourage you to step out of the trap that perfectionism will put you in.

Becoming aware of the thoughts and beliefs you have around your relationship with food - so that you can choose whether you want to continue to reinforce them and live by them or choose to focus on building other beliefs - this kind of thought work is very similar to going to the gym and choosing to focus on increasing your strength or your flexibility in certain areas. So what I’d like to do in this episode is focus on waking up some muscles (i.e. thoughts and beliefs) that run counter to perfectionism - perfectionism that may be sabotaging your efforts to change your eating and your relationship with food.

I’m betting a part of your brain needs to hear this, whether for the first time, or to have it reinforced. Because perfectionist belief systems will one hundred percent keep you stuck, frustrated, and doubting yourself.

So let’s talk about how perfectionism keeps you stuck on the overeating hamster wheel.

1. Expecting 100 percent all the time creates burnout and exhaustion and depletes motivation.

When you’re trying to change your eating and you're approaching to food within an all-or-nothing standard of perfectionism, something could always be better. Because one hundred percent isn’t possible 24/7. Perfectionism trains us to focus on the undone instead of what’s been accomplished. If it isn’t “all,” it tends to feel like nothing. Perfectionists feel like there is always more that could be done and short-change themselves when it comes to acknowledging and celebrating the smaller milestones and successes they achieve. Whether you are trying to lose weight or stop overeating before bed, perfectionism leads to minimizing what you actually do accomplish, and eventually, to discouragement and even burnout.

2. The pressure to be perfect leads to procrastination. 

Have you ever wondered why it’s so common to start over on Monday or tomorrow and not to simply keep moving forward? Perfectionists see success as an all or nothing proposition. A misstep means it’s ruined. All-or-nothing thinking leads to a common problem that I see all the time when women are considering joining Your Missing Peace. The goal they see for themselves is all or nothing. And it can feel so big or daunting that they have been caught in a cycle of not feeling “ready” to start. When we start breaking things down into do-able chunks and really underlining the progress along the way, this starts to shift. Perfectionistic thinking does not encourage you to break things down, or to take credit for every small milestone. In perfectionism, small milestones never feel like enough. 

When there’s only one success point and when the grading system is either an A or an F, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by big dreams or goals or ideas and to delay even getting started–because it’s too much work and the fear of failure is so strong.

3. Perfectionism erodes self-esteem and confidence. 

One of the biggest sources of motivation and momentum is the experience that what you’re doing is working - the experience that you are getting somewhere, you’re moving toward your goal. Because perfectionistic thinking is based on it only counting when it’s perfect, it’s very all or nothing. And as I said, milestones along the way tend to get discounted. You can do a hundred things “right” all day, but if you eat that extra chocolate chip cookie, your day is ruined. Nothing counts. Not only does your progress feel like it got ripped out from under you, so does any confidence that you may have built up that day. This is the price or perfectionism.

Embedded in the myth of perfectionism is the belief that it is actually possible and that, if you aren’t achieving it, you are falling short. I cannot tell you how liberating the concept of doing it imperfectly and moving forward knowing it’s okay if it’s a crappy first draft has been for members of Your Missing Peace. I also can’t tell you how often we need to come back to this and repeat it. Perfectionism runs deep. One of the very powerful things that happens in the program is that you see perfectionism from a different vantage point - and with more compassion when you see it in others.

Which brings you to another big way perfectionism can keep you stuck and overeating.

4. Being a perfectionist is isolating and limits your support system (which can reinforce perfectionism). 

Perfectionists avoid asking for help. Feeling like you are not “measuring up” leads to isolation and a tendency to hide what a perfectionist thinks of as “failures.” You miss out on seeing what’s going on in a different light, from someone else’s perspective, or from getting help. Perfectionism comes with a lot of “shoulds” like “you should have figured this out by now” and you “should be able to go it alone.”

5.One of the reasons it’s so important to be reminded of the price of perfectionism is that  perfectionistic thinking makes you rigid. It creates tight, restricted thinking instead of the nimble, creative problem solving that allows you to grow and succeed. 

The fear of “getting it wrong” limits risk-taking. The negative judgment that a perfectionist associates with mistakes can short circuit the ability to look at a situation creatively, tweak, modify, and build a better mousetrap. It keeps you from looking at those bad days or those plans that didn’t work as growth opportunities - where you can learn more about what DOES work for you and what adjustments you want to make to create peace with food.

So what can you do when you see the effects that perfectionism is having on you and on your eating?

First - remember that it’s a process. An IMPERFECT process. And that’s okay. Every time you challenge your inner perfectionism, you grow more flexible and able to step outside of it. Here are some ways you can get started:

1. Put “all good” and “all bad” thinking and “shoulds” on your radar. 

It’s easy to fall into the all-or-nothing mindset of a perfectionist without even realizing it. Work at noticing how and where this way of thinking shows up in your life. Start identifying your biggest trouble spots.

2. Challenge the myth that perfectionism is good for you. 

It’s not making you better or stronger—I promise. I sometimes have my clients create a list of how perfectionism affects them negatively.  How does it limit what you start, what you finish, or the risks and opportunities you might take? How does it impact your eating and are you stuck in that endless cycle of “blowing it” and starting over? Are you playing smaller or not fully “showing up” because you are afraid of “getting it wrong”?

3. Practice experimenting with curiosity instead of self-judgment.

 Negative self-judgment is a dead end. It’s impossible to think creatively and expansively when you are stuck in perfectionism and the fear of “screwing it up.” Instead, start approaching mistakes and imperfect results with curiosity. Ask yourself what you learned, why it didn’t go so well, and how it might be better. Curiosity allows you to own the positives and to tweak and improve. While perfectionism nurtures stuckness and rigidity, curious thinking creates flexibility and nimble, responsive action which is vital to personal and professional success.

4. Create some new, believable thoughts. 

If you are a perfectionist, you’re hearing some version of “it’s not good enough” inside your head, thousands of times a day. Create a new mantra or thought to tell yourself—one that you find believable—and start growing a new mindset. Some mantras my clients have chosen include, “I’m doing my best” and “Done is better than perfect” or “Of course it isn’t possible to get it perfect every time.”

5. Commit to keeping on.

Life and your eating aren’t games of Chutes and Ladders where one roll of the dice sends you all the way back to start. There is always a next step, a next choice, a next opportunity to choose how you talk to yourself or choose how you seek comfort or address your feelings, or what you do when you find yourself staring into the pantry. 

Peace with food and freedom from overeating happen one imperfect step at a time. NO ONE has ever arrived at that destination by being perfect. In fact, this may be a great thought for you to practice.

Let’s leave things with Anne Lamott and reprise that one more time: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

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Your Missing Peace is the psychologist-designed program that provides the tools, the support, the coaching, and the confidence to create freedom from emotional eating and overeating. Finally - emotional eating help done right! Your Missing Peace is specifically designed for smart, high-achieving women who are DONE with diets, who want a lasting solution, and who are ready to take their power back from food, from overeating, and the scale. 

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