Perfectionism and eating disorders are two complex and interconnected problems that can significantly impact a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Perfectionism is considered a personality trait marked by high standards and a strong desire to be flawless. Eating disorders differ in that they are mental illnesses marked by disturbed eating habits and preoccupation with food, body shape, and weight. As you can imagine, the two can be closely connected, with perfectionism strongly contributing to the development and/or worsening of eating disorders.
Definition of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is defined as a personality trait characterized by a person’s concern with striving for flawlessness accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations of them. Perfectionism is sometimes viewed as a personality trait or symptom but can also be understood as a process.
Perfectionism associated with mental health disorders or psychological problems is problematic and has been referred to as clinical perfectionism. The three aspects of clinical perfectionism are:
- Extremely high standards: Perfectionists have standards and expectations for themselves, others, or life in general that most people would consider extreme or unreasonable.
- Self-worth tied to high standards: People with clinical perfectionism tend to judge themselves according to their high standards.
- Persistence despite negative outcomes: Clinical perfectionism is also characterized by aiming for these high standards despite consistently negative consequences or outcomes.
It’s important to note that perfectionism doesn’t necessarily affect every area of a person’s life. For instance, they may display these tendencies only in some areas and not others, such as in their eating habits. Perfectionism commonly affects areas like close relationships, health, personal hygiene, athletics, neatness, organization, performance at school or work, and physical appearance.
Perfectionism Symptoms & Characteristics
Perfectionistic behaviors are actions and thought patterns that reflect a strong desire for flawlessness and extremely high standards. These behaviors can manifest in numerous ways, such as excessive self-criticism, fear of failure, procrastination, and extreme thinking. People who engage in perfectionistic behaviors often set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others, which can impact relationships and lead to frustration, anxiety, and dissatisfaction.
Perfectionists may also struggle with accepting criticism or making mistakes, which can contribute to a constant need for validation. This may also contribute to negative consequences, as perfectionistic behaviors can also contribute to stress and burnout. It’s important to recognize and address these tendencies to avoid repercussions for the individual’s mental and physical health.
On that note, common traits and signs of perfectionism to look out for include:
- Your mentality is all or nothing: If you believe you’re in second place, then you see yourself as the loser. Your perfectionism causes you to have an either/or mentality, especially when it comes to your performance.
- You constantly crave approval and validation from others: Perfectionists tend to desire validation and approval above all other things, so you may find yourself constantly focusing on how others see you and what they say about your efforts.
- You get defensive with feedback: There’s a difference between a cruel comment and constructive feedback. Perfectionism may make it difficult for you to sit through a performance review without getting defensive or wanting to argue.
- You’re highly critical of others and hold them to high standards: If you feel as if you’re perfect, then, of course, others will continually fail to live up to your standards. While it’s normal to be critical of others from time to time, perfectionism can lead you to be constantly critical, which can hurt your professional and personal relationships.
- You’re a huge procrastinator: Fear of failure is one of the core characteristics of a perfectionist, which tends to result in avoidant behavior like procrastination.
- You feel guilty: If you feel as if you’ve been your absolute best self, any mistake – however small – can feel like a major failure. This can make you feel as if you’re always failing, which can lead to a persistent sense of guilt.
- You have low self-esteem: Although striving for perfectionism is associated with having high self-esteem, the core of perfectionism has a lot to do with self-criticism, which tends to coincide with low self-esteem. Loneliness and isolation are also common among perfectionists, which can cause them to push away others and further damage their self-esteem.
Perfectionism and Eating Disorders
Eating disorders and perfectionism have a complex relationship. Many individuals who struggle with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia nervosa also exhibit symptoms of perfectionism. Perfectionism is considered a risk factor for the development of disordered eating.
As we previously explained, perfectionism involves setting impossibly high standards for oneself and striving for flawlessness in either one, several, or every aspect of life. When perfectionist tendencies are applied to a person’s body and appearance, it can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with weight, dieting, and exercise. As a result, this can manifest itself in eating disorder behaviors and symptoms, such as restrictive eating, over-exercising, or binge eating and purging.
On the other hand, perfectionistic behaviors can also make it difficult for people with eating disorders to seek help or accept treatment, as they may consider this a sign of weakness. Additionally, the fear of not being able to live up to expectations and standards or meet one’s goals may contribute to feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety, which can further contribute to eating disorder symptoms.
It's important to note that not all people who exhibit perfectionism symptoms develop eating disorders, and not all people with eating disorders are perfectionists. However, understanding the connection between perfectionism and eating disorders can help with the prevention and treatment of the latter.
Our Philadelphia Eating Disorder Clinic Can Help
If you suspect that a loved one has an eating disorder or that you may be exhibiting signs, there are numerous eating disorder assessment tools used by professionals and available online that can steer you toward a diagnosis and professional care. Keep in mind, however, that these tools are not meant to replace a diagnosis from a healthcare professional, so it’s always best to confirm any eating disorder diagnosis with a doctor.
Additionally, if you’re searching for an in-depth and comprehensive eating disorder program, our facility can help. Banyan Treatment Centers offers Philadelphia eating disorder treatment for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and more. Through the use of evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and nutrition-based care, we can help you or a loved one overcome symptoms and learn how to live a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.