Why Being Perfect Isn’t Always What It Seems: The Link Between Eating Disorders
By: Leigh C. Brosof
We all know someone who is (or perhaps recognize within ourselves) a perfectionist: the person who gets good grades or excels at their job, is involved in a myriad of activities outside of school/work, and seems to never settle for anything but the best. This can’t possibly be a bad thing, right? While having high standards is not necessarily harmful, high levels of perfectionism can create vulnerability for certain problems to develop, especially in terms of disordered eating. In fact, perfectionism is recognized as a vulnerability factor for eating disorders.
In order to understand why perfectionism can be harmful at times, it is first important to define exactly what perfectionism is. Colloquially, perfectionism is defined as anything less than perfect being unacceptable, where being “perfect” means living up to standards of extreme excellence or not making any mistakes (Merriam-Webster, 2016). This is actually a pretty complex definition when you look at it, and that’s why perfectionism is defined in a slightly different way by researchers. Researchers view perfectionism as a multi-dimensional construct, meaning that it’s made up of multiple parts (Frost et al., 1990).
More specifically, perfectionism can be broken down into two parts: adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism (Hewitt, Flett, Turnbull-Donovan, & Mikail, 1991). Adaptive perfectionism is when an individual has high standards for themselves. Maladaptive perfectionism can also be called evaluative perfectionism. In this type of perfectionism, individuals become preoccupied over making mistakes, which then leads to self-critical evaluation. Whereas adaptive perfectionism is healthy because it pushes an individual to do his or her best and set high expectations (DiBartolo, Frost, Chang, LaSota, & Grills, 2004), maladaptive perfectionism is harmful because it means that nothing we do will ever be good enough and that we set unattainable standards for ourselves. This can obviously lead to disappointment and feelings of inadequacy.
So, how does this relate to eating? If an individual sets unattainable standards for themselves in all areas of their life because of perfectionistic tendencies, then this can lead to negative outcomes for mental health, such as anxiety and depression, as well as disordered eating attitudes and behaviors (DiBartolo, Li, & Frost, 2008). In fact, some research has linked a specific type of perfectionism to eating disorders (Bardone-Cone et al., 2007). This type of perfectionism is the excessive worry over making mistakes.
Researchers have proposed different theories as to why perfectionism may lead to eating disorders. For instance, some researchers have proposed that disordered eating behaviors manifest after an individual high in perfectionism internalizes the thin-ideal (or the societal belief that being thin is the ideal body type). This thin-ideal set by society, however, is unattainable. The pursuit of this impossible thin-ideal along with the self-criticism that accompanies maladaptive perfectionism might lead to disordered eating. Other theories suggest that perfectionism may lead to other negative outcomes, such as low self-esteem or fears of being judged by others based on appearance and that these outcomes then lead to disordered eating behaviors (Brosof & Levinson, 2017; Mackinnon et al., 2011).
Importantly, by better understanding how perfectionism relates to eating disorders, we now also know that we can create interventions to target perfectionism to help treat eating disorders. For instance, one type of treatment might be having a patient practice making mistakes to help them learn that making a mistake does not lead to terrible outcomes. We can also help prevent eating disorders by helping people already high in perfectionism through similar interventions.
It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and that making mistakes is normal! In fact, making mistakes is how you learn. It is also important to know that there is no such thing as a “perfect” body or a “perfect” diet. All of our bodies are different in order to do different things and need to be fueled according to our own needs. You are worthwhile person and you are good enough, no matter what. If you are or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or other mental health problems due to perfectionism, there is help. We are currently offering a perfectionism group treatment, please reach out if you are interested in joining. You can also call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.