How Perfectionism With Food Makes You Miserable and How You Can Find Balance
If you are a perfectionist, chances are this behavior trait carries over to your relationship with food and your body. Following rules, putting others’ needs before your own, having difficulty with boundaries. All of these characteristics might win you praise in your life, but they are probably making you miserable when it comes to food.
Do you start each day (or week) vowing to follow a certain meal or exercise plan, but find yourself throwing up your hands in frustration when one element doesn’t exactly meet your goals? You might feel like a couple deviations are a good reason to go completely off course.
As humans, we like plans and order. Knowing what we are doing tells us where we are headed. Making plans can be good and necessary. But, if you are prone to perfectionism, plans can become far too constrictive and prevent you from living a life where you can enjoy food and movement.
The good news is that you can take steps to break free from perfectionism so you can enjoy all foods – yes, all foods – I can help with that!
Three ways to decrease perfectionism with food and find balance:
1. Treat every meal and snack as the start of something new.
All too often, women eat something they didn’t intend. Perhaps it was a piece of candy at work, or a cookie before dinner. And then they throw their hands up and either vow not to eat the rest of the day, or they eat everything in sight for the rest of the day.
Labeling days or meals “good” or “bad” sets you up for lots of stress, which isn’t good for you either! If you eat something you didn’t intend, sit down and enjoy it at least! Savor every bite and then move on. Over time, you can trust your body to give you hunger and fullness signals that regulate your food. But, you’ll only get there if you stop beating yourself up.
2. Experiment with flexibility in your meals.
Another characteristic of perfectionism is weighing, measuring and counting. However, this type of thinking doesn’t acknowledge that we are not robots or machines. Our food intake and our hunger and fullness levels can vary throughout the week, and that is completely normal.
One simple thing you can do to develop your flexibility muscles is to experiment with leaving a little food on your plate, or in the package. This is a technique I use with my clients sometimes, and is called the ‘symbolic bite.”
You practice leaving just one bite behind instead of finishing everything in front of you. It can be hard to get started if you’re used to eating everything you have portioned out. But, the very act of leaving behind this bite does so much to begin building trust between you and your body.
3. Banish judgment.
Try curiosity instead. What’s the first thing you do when you eat something unplanned? I’m going to guess that you feel shame and guilt, which leads to lots of negative talk: “you can’t do anything right! No wonder you……”.
The problem with guilt, shame and negative self-talk is that it does not make us healthier or more inclined to follow our rules next time. A judgmental mindset keeps us stuck because we are constantly in a stressed or threatened state. Don’t believe me? Check your heart rate the next time you catch yourself beating yourself up after a negative eating experience.
To your body, judgmental negative self-talk provokes the same response as having your boss or friend yell at you. And there’s one thing we know from neurological research: the thinking part of our brains shuts down when we are in a threatened state*.
So, instead of expecting perfection, the next time you notice you’re doing something unplanned, switch off your judgmental mind and let your curious mind reign.
What might that look like?
Curiosity often involves asking questions. Say you ate 5 Hershey’s kisses from the candy bowl at work. A curious mind might think, “I wonder why I ate those candies?….” And then you might start to think of some reasons: a deadline has you stressed, you skipped lunch, or you never allow yourself to eat them at home. And then you can actually make some constructive plans moving forward.
Can you notice how this curiosity can lead to a better outcome than making threats?
Perfectionism might get us praise at work but it can really harm our relationship with food and our body. If you are stuck in a place where you obsess about food, but find yourself caught in a cycle of dieting, binge eating and shame, taking a more balanced approach can bring back the joy.
You might have read this and thought – that seems too simple to be effective. And the truth is, the concepts are simple. Deceptively so. This is where having the support of a dietitian like me comes in!
All too often, we just don’t see all the little things in our lives that hold us back from living our best lives. I help my clients find food freedom and peace with their bodies with customized support and accountability. If you’re interested in ditching diets and making lasting change, schedule your complimentary Take Action Call with me today. It’s a no pressure way for you to discuss your goals and determine your next best steps.
P.S. Does your perfectionistic self want to do all of these things immediately? I knew it! My challenge to you is to try one of these a few days this week. And have your goal to be NOT to aim for 7 days a week! Are you game?
Want to learn more?
If you find yourself thinking about food all the time, you probably have a long list of foods that you won’t eat. Did you know that making peace with food can help you break free from this mindset? For more information, read my article, 5 Steps to Make Peace with Food: Principle 3 of Intuitive Eating.
*Stress-Related Noradrenergic Activity Prompts Large-Scale Neural Network Reconfiguration, Science, 25 Nov 2011
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”