A common trait between those with Eating Disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is perfectionism. Perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goals. Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen in our society as desirable or even necessary for success. The problem is that with perfectionism nothing is ever ‘enough’ and those who suffer from it often start becoming fearful of making mistakes or taking risks. The other obvious problem is that ‘perfect’ does not exist. However, many of us have internalized beliefs from our capitalistic society and/or have pressures from our families and cultures to strive for this. For those of us with eating disorders and/or OCD, this can start impacting the way we approach recovery. You may be extremely critical of yourself for every ‘mistake’ made in recovery, any slip up, intrusive thought or experience of discomfort. You may be upset at yourself for how ‘long’ recovery takes, thinking you should have recovered by now. You may have a feeling of needing to do things ‘just right.’ All of these lead to unreasonable expectations of recovery and can serve as a huge barrier to actually recovering. Let’s break down some of the most common examples I see- and work towards seeing the ‘grey’ area in each.
“Recovery is taking so long! It feels like I take one step forward and three steps back! I must be messing it up.”
The biggest perfectionistic belief that I often see developing in one’s recovery is rigidity about how long recovery is taking and/or seeing slip ups as ‘going backwards’ vs. necessary for growth. Even if you’ve heard it a million times: “Recovery isn’t linear!” you may still struggle with the sense that it should be for you. You may think you are the problem in the recovery process or become critical of any mistake or slip up instead of seeing them as chances to grow and learn something new about yourself. The truth is recovery is never linear. Everyone has ups and downs. Everyone has slip ups. They are actually crucial for learning and applying new skills and ways of thinking in recovery. In recovery we have to take risks to get the life of meaning we desire- these risks (reducing compulsions, facing a fear food) will not be carried out perfectly, ever. It is actually within that imperfection that we see where more healing and compassion is needed. Next time you feel harsh towards yourself for recovery not going ‘fast enough’ remember that it is neither time limited or linear. Recovery for many is a lifelong journey, a way of living with periods of ease and difficulty. Give yourself the grace to learn and grow, you are doing a very, very hard thing.
“I had an awful week with intrusive thoughts! I must be doing something really wrong, is recovery not working for me?”
While I wish recovery meant never being triggered or having intrusive thoughts again, this is not the case. Almost everyone I work with at some point reveals a desire to never experience intrusive thoughts or triggers again. I get it, I really do. As someone who has had an ED and OCD, I 100% understand this desire. Intrusive thoughts and triggers SUCK. Big time. No one likes them. However we cannot control our thoughts- only our response. Recovery is more about changing our relationship to triggers and intrusive thoughts. We will still get them (every human does) but over time (and lots of therapy) we lessen the fear response associated with them. This means they bring you less suffering and pain, however, it doesn’t mean they are gone forever.
“I am in recovery, shouldn’t I be happier?”
Recovery also does not mean being happy all the time. Recovery helps you become more free from your ED and/or OCD, but you will still have hard days, moments where you miss your ED, life challenges and stressors. Recovery actually requires us to live more authentically and face the raw reality of life: it is hard, vulnerable and messy. You are not ‘doing it wrong’ if you don’t feel great all the time. I always remind myself that facing life’s challenges is a lot easier without my Eating Disorder- over time. It might not feel like it in the moment, but in the long run it is so much easier to cope with life challenges without the Eating Disorder ALSO causing you immense distress.
Final Thoughts and Reflection
What perfectionistic beliefs are holding you back in recovery? Maybe you thought of some that aren’t on here. Maybe you saw yourself in each! That’s okay. These are extremely common and at one point, I held on to each and every one of these as well. The first step to changing the way we think about recovery expectations is by identifying what ours are- then asking ourselves and our support teams:
“Is this realistic?” “Would I expect this of anyone else?”
“What is this perfectionistic belief protecting me from?”
“How is it serving me/not serving me?”
“When and why did I become fearful of making mistakes?”
“What is an example of ‘living in the grey’ for each perfectionistic belief I carry in recovery?” “How can I be more compassionate instead of judgemental with myself in this process?”
If you’re struggling with an Eating Disorder or OCD, please know you are not alone and help is available. Working towards letting go of perfectionism in recovery is something my practice would love to help you with. Everyone deserves freedom and peace, and yes, it is possible. Reach out to us today to book a free 15 minute phone consultation.