Working Through Perfectionism in Eating Disorder Recovery by Jessica Gilliland, MS, LAMFT


Perfectionism is the pressure to live up to an unreasonably high or perfect standard–no mistakes allowed. For those engaged in eating disorder recovery, combating perfectionism can feel like an uphill battle. Even for individuals who are highly committed to recovering from an eating disorder, the pressure to be “perfect,” whether it comes to body appearance, weight, emotions, choices, or relationships, can be crushing at times. This pressure to be perfect is not something that only individuals in eating disorder recovery feel; almost everyone can relate to feeling the burden of perfectionism at some point in life, especially when it comes to times of life when change and growth are a focus.

Embracing Ambiguity

In working with my clients, I have noticed perfectionism begin to rear its head as recovery starts to gain positive momentum. Suddenly it seems like there is a “right” way to do recovery. The expectation of doing recovery “right” can be just as intimidating as deciding to choose recovery in the first place. Suddenly new ways to fail start popping up, and the questions of self-doubt start getting louder:

“Was I good enough at treating my body kindly, or am I still letting my eating disorder win?”

“Part of me is still afraid of letting go of my eating disorder. Does that mean I’m not really in recovery?”

“I just turned down a lunch date with a friend because I was feeling anxious. Is that a recovery ‘fail?’”

These doubts and fears are a common part of the ambiguity that can surround eating disorder recovery or any type of change or progress. Often it can feel like there is a line dividing what is “recovered” and what is not. The truth is, recovery is not as black and white as it might seem. Sometimes turning down a lunch date in favor of another form of self-care IS the recovery-friendly choice. Another day, choosing to go out to lunch despite feeling anxious might be the next step in moving recovery forward. These grey areas can seem frustrating and even frightening, especially to a person who struggles with the pressure to do things perfectly. However, learning to be flexible and to accept ambiguity and its resulting difficult emotions can be a key part of moving away from a life governed by the strict and unforgiving rules of an eating disorder, and toward a life led by deeply held values that guide a person toward what they truly want most.

Getting in Touch with What Matters Most

Even as a therapist, I am not immune to the sneaky effects of perfectionism in my own life. Recently I realized that I still have some insecurities about my body, despite having been recovered from my eating disorder for several years. Almost without my realizing it, perfectionism started to feed those insecurities until I came to what felt like a bit of a recovery identity crisis. Those questions of self-doubt started to make themselves heard. “I’ve spent years in my own recovery, and years learning about eating disorders and how to treat them, so shouldn’t I have all of this stuff figured out by now?” The pressure to be perfect at recovery started getting stronger and stronger, and my confidence in my identity as a recovered person began to take a major hit!

After a lot of self-reflection and work with my own therapist (and yes, therapists can benefit from therapy, too!), I stumbled upon a truth that I needed to find for myself. It came to my mind as a gentle question:

“What if instead of worrying about whether I’m doing my own recovery ‘right’ or not, I tried doing what feels caring and kind to myself?”

While my day-to-day life looks very different now than it did when I was in the throes of my eating disorder, I have recognized that being intentional about treating myself with kindness is still an essential part of staying committed to recovery. Kindness and compassion are some of my core values, or principles that I want to rely on in guiding my life. Perfectionism started to get in between my values and my thoughts and attitude toward my body. As I have gone through the process of facing my insecurities and getting back in touch with my values, the draw toward perfectionism has seemed less urgent and less appealing. While it has not been easy to accept that I still do have some body image woes, giving myself permission to struggle with them has opened the opportunity for me to grow and gain insight as I have reconnected with what is most important to me.

For me, recovery does not mean suddenly arriving at a place where I always make the “right” choice about food, exercise, my body, or anything else. In most cases, it actually means taking away the pressure of the labels “right” and “wrong,” and instead responding to my physical and emotional needs. It doesn’t mean that I never experience negative feelings about the way my body looks. It does mean that I give myself permission to make loving choices for myself and for my body, despite negative feelings that may come up at times. I can maintain my commitment to recovery even when I feel shaken up by difficult emotions, as long as I can keep my core values in sight.

Breaking Free

While perfectionism can develop a tight grip on us as we try to change and progress, there is hope for breaking free. When we give ourselves permission to struggle and stumble on the journey of change, we open the door for peaceful self-acceptance, wherever we may be on that journey. As we allow ourselves to be guided by what matters most deep down, rather than by the harsh and inflexible rules of perfectionism, we find satisfaction and meaning in our experiences. Letting go of the “right” way to do recovery, or any type of change, can be like taking a breath of fresh air.

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