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  • Writer's picturePaige Smathers

Perfectionism [with food] Is A Shapeshifter

I talk a lot about intuitive eating, positive nutrition, trusting your body and learning to be at peace with food in the work I do as a registered dietitian. Because I specialize in disordered eating and chronic dieting, much of my work revolves around helping my clients recognize perfectionistic, rigid and all-or-nothing thinking with food, eating and nutrition. Letting go of perfection with food is critical because perfect eating doesn't really exist. And, perfect eating isn't healthy eating and healthy eating isn't perfect eating.

So often having the impossible ideal of perfection as your goal is the very source of chaos and dysfunction with food you’re trying to avoid.

Perfectionism is sneaky, though. In fact, I think of it as a shapeshifter. It can feel like a game of whack-a-mole where you knock it down in one area of life, only to see it resurface in another. Healing your relationship with food—in many cases—requires a deep, hard look at your perfectionism in all areas of life: not just with food.

Here's an important thing to understand about perfectionism according to Brene Brown. She says: "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It's a shield."

So, there's a distinction to be made here: it's not wrong or bad to try to be your best whether that's with food, with self-care or with other areas of life. But, if you take an honest look at things, it's important to separate whether you are truly trying your best or whether you believe that acting, living or appearing perfect is somehow acting as a shield to protect yourself and to avoid pain, judgement or shame.

And, because perfectionism is a shapeshifter, morphing and adjusting as you attempt to rid yourself of it, it’s critical to look at how you might be able to work on letting go of perfectionistic thinking altogether (imperfectly, of course).

Three things that can be effective in challenging perfectionistic thinking are: investing in quality therapy with a credentialed mental health therapist, reading great books on the topic and practicing mindfulness meditation.

Sitting in a therapeutic setting where you are able to explore all areas of your life and your beliefs around perfectionism and beyond is such a gift. Having someone outside of your familial and social circles who allows you to explore your authentic self can be incredibly healing. Therapists are trained to help you explore your beliefs and thoughts and help you uncover your authentic, imperfect self. Therapy doesn’t need to be dry and boring—in fact, it can be one of the most life-giving hours of your week. Consider finding someone in your area who can help you examine your perfectionistic thinking and help you figure out who you are under your perfectionistic shield.

There are some incredible books and resources about the topic of perfectionism. I recommend starting with Brene Brown’s work. She has many titles that explore the concept of perfectionism but two of my favorites are: The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly.

Another thing to consider is mindfulness meditation. Don’t let those words scare you—you can start by simply practicing sitting with your thoughts and feelings. There is so much to say and explore about this concept beyond what the word limit of this article will allow, but on the surface, non-judgmentally giving yourself the space to experience what you are thinking and feeling can be a powerful way to find answers about how to best move forward for you. There are many great resources and books about this topic as well. Simply setting aside a few minutes each day to breathe and experience your thoughts and feelings can be healing in and of itself.

This concept of perfectionism is baked into the very culture and society we live in. It makes sense that we fall into the trap of perfectionism, but with time, we can understand for ourselves that holding onto perfectionism is often the very source of chaos and distress that we’re trying to avoid. After all, there is far more peace in being relatively good, kind, calm, and happy than in pushing yourself to be 100% anything. Shedding the false shield of perfectionism is a step toward that peace.

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