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Clinical Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

By Deborah Etienne-WardPerfectionism 1

People with clinical perfectionism judge themselves based on their ability to meet exceptionally high standards in all areas of their life. Some features associated with clinical perfectionism include:

  • An over-evaluation of achievement in a valued area of life (e.g. performance at school or work, sport, music, or art).
  • A fear of failure to meet their own standards.
  • The pursuit of achieving in one or more valued areas is often to the detriment of performance in other areas of life. For example, the time and effort that a perfectionist might spend to try to get an A+ on an exam might lead to inadequate rest, consequently affecting their health.
  • Discounting successes and over-evaluating failures. For example, when perfectionists reach their goals they do not spend time to acknowledge their achievement. Instead they raise their expectations. In contrast when perfectionists fail to meet an expectation they give a lot of attention to their perceived failure.
  • Avoidance of evaluations of performance. For example perfectionists may avoid completing or submitting an assignment for fear that their performance is not good enough.
  • Repeatedly checking their performance against their own high standards and comparing their performance to that of other people. When perfectionists compare themselves to others they often do so in areas that they feel they are “not good enough”. Furthermore, they compare their perceived imperfections with people who are top performers in a certain area. For example, they might compare their cooking to a professional chef.

Evidently it is impossible for a perfectionist to meet all the standards that they expect of themselves.

People with a perfectionistic personality are more likely to develop an eating disorder because they place high standards on their body shape and weight, in the same way that they do with other aspects of their life. As a result they diet, exercise, and check their body to especially extreme amounts. This intensifies the eating disorder and makes it more difficult to treat.

Two steps to challenge your perfectionism: 

  • Perfectionism 2Try to engage in activities that do not allow you to measure your performance. Some ideas may be: reading a book, listening to music, talking to friends, relaxing on the beach, seeing a movie, or watching a TV show. Many perfectionists would feel that these activities are a “waste of time”, however, they give you an opportunity to do something enjoyable without putting pressure on yourself. As a consequence these activities provide you with some relaxation and rest. Whilst at first, you may feel more anxious about “doing pointless activities”, over time they do become more enjoyable. Being able to switch off from performance driven activities will actually benefit your performance in the long run as when you are rested both quality of work and productivity increases.
  • Avoid avoidance- that is try not to allow yourself to avoid every test that will assess your performance. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, by not participating in the test (whether it be an exam; an assignment; or a performance review etc.) you don’t get an opportunity to realistically learn about your performance. Furthermore, the longer that you avoid finding out your true performance the greater the fear of failure/fear of being evaluated negatively will become.

The psychologists at BodyMatters see clients whose everyday functioning is being impacted by clinical perfectionism. Please contact us if you would like further information.

References

Fairburn, C.G. (2008). Clinical Perfectionism. In C.G. Fairburn (Ed.) Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York: The Guilford Press

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