On the whole, I think we or society generally see perfectionism as a good thing.
Why might this be?
Well it only follows on from the concept of ‘perfect’ itself which at some point we came up with; re-enforcing and evolving the basic idea that things could have a state of right and wrong, should or should not, to the point where things often simply exist in a state of imperfection and once altered to a state or perfection, cannot be improved.
If we stop and think, we know instinctively that there is not such thing as perfection. It’s an idea, depending on how anyone consciousness perceives it, and will be different for others minds. But that alone doesn’t mean being a perfectionist – one that strives for perfection is a bad thing.
Striving for perfection in various areas of your life (or your definition of it at least) shows you are living in accordance with your own values. You are setting your standard for how you want to live and what matters to you. You are taking control of your existence and influencing an outcome which you believe in.
With it comes some personality traits and behaviors like grit, discipline, perseverance, and ambition. Things which are also inherently seen as positive and productive in society. People admire perfectionists.
But if you are reading this and generally you know you hold a high level of perfectionism, you know when it can become a problem.
First, it’s the sheer disappointment or guilt we experience when we don’t meet our idea of perfection because we feel like we are not in line with our values or meeting our goals.
Second, it’s when our idea of perfection and the extent we value it, conflicts with someone else’s values and interpretations – for example when you think you have cleaned the kitchen so it is ‘perfectly’ clean, and then a few hours later you find your housemate has completely tarnished your work in some way, without any awareness that they have done so, or the amount of effort and sacrifice you put into achieving the result.
So whilst perfectionism can be really useful, I think both these problems have implications for some areas of people’s lives including different eating disorders.
Whilst perfectionism exists in all people to some extent, and I am by no means saying it is the root cause of any disorders, it can play a particularly prominent role in how people’s eating disorders develop.
I think the first problem exists in all eating disorders to some extent. Whether Orthorexia or Anorexia, or just being a bit OCD about counting calories or avoiding particular foods. When we don’t live in line with our idea of perfection, we get upset. Or we feel huge amounts of guilt. Or both. This is an internal pain.
With the second problem, the issue is clearly more external. I think this exists when other people’s idea of perfection, or more largely, society’s portrayed vision of perfection, is saturated within our collective day to day existence. The key issue here, versus when you housemate annoys you, you get over it, and that’s that – is that some people try very hard to believe in society’s idea of perfection and become it rather than just being happy to strive for their own idea of wonderful uniqueness and individuality.
Rather than developing their own idea of what is right, they have embraced an idea pushed very hard by society until they actually make this non-achievable vision their own in order to align to the world’s values and be accepted. In other words, they really care what people think about them.
This largely affects eating disorders like Anorexia more than those with Orthorexia, and is a key aspect of which distinguishes the two in my opinion. Most people with Orthorexia are actually only doing it to meet their own standards internally and society just perpetuates this. But other eating disorders are fueled far more by body image, and the starting point is society’s pressure on people who are particularly insecure about what other beings think abut their state of existence.
So on the surface, there are two solutions, regardless of how practical or easy they are to implement.
For the first problem, it’s recognizing and accepting that you will never truly reach perfection. Because accepting that, and continuing your efforts still simply because you enjoy the process of striving for it anyway, is key to reaping the benefits of a perfectionist without the emotional pain and distress.
For the second problem, the answer may be seen as ‘stop caring what other people think’. Sounds easy. And is at the heart of a lot of good advice, self-help books, and psychology. It also mimics ideas shared among recovering patients, which perpetuate the idea of appreciating your own beauty.
Knowing that you are perfect just for existing.
But for these people, it’s easier said than done.