During our Recovery Talks sessions, we’ve been hearing from some amazing speakers about their personal recovery journey and the learnings they have gained from their experiences. Here, our speaker from last month, Danielle, gives us her useful and insightful perspective on dealing with ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, perfectionism, and over-exercising.
Q: How did you overcome the thought of ‘I’ve broken this rule so now I might as well just go and eat all this stuff’?
A: This is definitely a difficult one and it takes time because our mind will ALWAYS try and trick us into the ‘all or nothing’ thinking that we have lived by for so long. The irony of this is, we know that bingeing is often a sign that our body has not received enough nutrients throughout the day, however we also know that bingeing is unhelpful for digestion – and considering it often occurred at night for me it not only made me feel uncomfortable but the guilt was almost immediate. My biggest desired food was chocolate – which I had always loved but when I was unwell I deprived myself from due to my ‘black or white’ rules. Whenever I ‘allowed’ myself to have this, I would often binge and then start eating anything else I had not allowed myself to have in a while. What I started to do was ‘allow’ myself to have a bit of chocolate every day or in your case the foods that you aren’t allowing yourself. Even if I didn’t feel like it I would have a small piece. This did not affect my body at all. Soon, my mind shifted and it wasn’t such a desired food anymore – I could have it when I felt like it. It goes back to what I was talking about in relation to habits, we have built a way of thinking about certain foods that we slowly have to unravel and create new ways of thinking. Once this happens, our views and relationship with foods we once labelled as ‘bad’ changes and as a result bingeing is less frequent and then non-existent.
To this day, I have chocolate every single day and no longer see certain foods as ‘forbidden’. As soon as we label something as bad or untouchable it actually becomes more desirable, so what happens when we have it and know that we are not going to ‘allow’ ourselves to have it again, we consume all of it or more than we intended to. So by allowing yourself to have these certain foods each day you are not only doing your body justice by having them in small amounts, but the cravings will also subside as it isn’t forbidden. My mind began to relax knowing that if it wanted it, it could have it.
Of course, this takes time, but it is definitely a worthwhile investment. When I was told I could have chocolate every day and it would not affect my body I was like OH AS IF!!! – but proof is in the pudding – and I am the pudding ☺.
In saying all the above – there are times when I do definitely crave certain foods more, during stressful times or PMS. I know this normal and ok! So I allow myself to eat more and don’t punish myself for it. Both my emotions and body are grateful for the extra love I show it hahaha ☺
Q: How was your relationship to exercise and how has it changed during recovery?
A: When I was unwell, exercise was very much an obligation and purely linked to appearance. I was driven by guilt and calories in/calories out. I had a huge fear of lifting weights. I overtrained and under-ate. This was extremely dangerous and actually resulted in a negative relationship with exercise as punishment. I was also EXTREMELY rigid and could not handle plans that interfered with my exercise plans. Flexibility did not exist. As a result, I was mentally and physically drained, my metabolism and digestion were very sluggish and I felt CRAP.
Now, my exercise is both social and performance driven. I do group based exercise, I never weigh myself and use performance as an indicator for improvement. I set goals that are realistic and fun. Exercise is also a huge contributor to positive mental health for me, whereby before it contributed to a decline in my mental health. What I mean is, after a long day at work it helps to be able to shift my focus and catch up with friends and be ‘mindful’ during exercise so that I am not carrying any of the day’s stress with me.
I also fuel my body now to be able to train – this is huge difference to how I trained before. I eat more so that I can train and not ‘overwork’ my body. Our bodies are like cars – if they are low on fuel, they will start to break down and eventually stop functioning properly. So this could mean that we are sore, tired, drained, unable to concentrate and actually slowing down our metabolism by overtraining and undereating.
The scales are so misunderstood. Your weight could remain exactly the same or even increase but your body has undergone significant and important changes. So the relevance and usefulness of scales is 0. Exactly the same as BMI. Listen to your body and feel the changes in mood, digestion and mobility – THESE are the key indicators for me that I am at optimal health and have a great relationship with food/ exercise.
Q: What are your tips for dealing with perfectionism/ a high achieving personality? How do you learn when perfectionism is and isn’t helpful?
A: Perfectionism is something that I have been managing for a long time. When younger I managed this through unhelpful coping mechanisms as I was unaware that this was even a concern or trait I had, and as I have gotten older and recovered I can now tell.
When perfectionism is impacting on your whole life and thoughts, it is unhelpful. If it is impacting on productivity, meaning you are not actually getting things done but putting them off because you fear they won’t be perfect, it is unhelpful.
Here is a nice formula to remember – UNHELPFUL PERFECTIONISM = PROCRASTINATION, REDUCED PRODUCTIVITY AND PAIN (whether that be self-critical thoughts, increased stress, mood changes)
Being aware of when your perfectionism is likely to tip over into the unhelpful stage is key to being able to manage it. My perfectionism tips into unhelpful when I have increased stress – so it becomes an unhelpful coping mechanism whereby my brain says ‘if I do this perfectly or I fix this, then I will feel better’. What usually happens is, I focus in on very tiny details that are almost unnoticeable to the naked eye, I take a lot longer to complete things and I don’t feel better because I am not actually dealing with the stress causing my perfectionism and even if I do ‘fix’ the perceived problem, I will move onto something else to nit-pick at.
Here is an example of my perfectionism at university: I had a university assignment due in 3 months’ time worth 40%. My mind immediately said this is worth a lot so I have to put in a lot of effort. I also have other subjects to do at university. For the next 3 months I would chop and change ideas and bounce them across to people and wouldn’t even start the assignment until I had researched EVERYTHING. This meant I had so many resources that I now had to try and include in my assignment. The topic I chose and arguments to be the best so that I got a good mark.
Note: notice my language ‘have to’ ‘need to’ ‘must’ etc. It is all very black and white and places a lot of pressure.
I handed the assignment in and sure, I got great marks but here were the pros, cons and considerations of how perfectionism affected completing the assignment.
- I passed and got a high distinction
- Family said that’s great
- After receiving the mark I thought I would be very excited but I didn’t really feel anything other than relief
- It consumed my thoughts from the moment I received the assignment – so 3 whole months
- I didn’t go out and avoided some social situations because I was too stressed
- I couldn’t just complete the work when I sat down to do it because I never thought it was good enough
- Family and boyfriend would ask to help but I would get angry and lash out at them causing arguments
- Ideally I just wanted to pass by the end, but my perception of ‘pass’ was clearly ABOVE AND BEYOND. I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘perfect’.
I see considerations as the logic that we often forget when we go into ‘unhelpful perfectionism’ mode.
- When I finish university, no one is going to ask to see this one assignment out of the 4 years I spent at university.
- No one will ask for my mark on the assignment, which shows I am the only one placing value on it.
- Those who pass university end up with the exact same paper as those who get distinctions.
- If I keep going like this and feeling so drained and stressed about university – I may not even be able to finish, and surely that means I will feel worse than just ‘passing’?
- Sure I could spend half my time in my room and making sure I get the assignment done ‘perfectly’, but if I was to do ‘good enough’ I would then be able to see friends, socialise and maybe even gain practical experience volunteering in the field.
- In the BIG PICTURE, how important is this really? Am I better to sit on it for ages or send it off as is so that I have been productive?
How I learned about my perfectionism and when it tipped into the unhelpful stages were when I started to notice some of the above (and I still use these as markers today).
I recommend reading the below books which I found super helpful!
- The gifts of imperfection: Letting go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are by Brene Brown (all her books and Ted Talks are great)
- Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar
- Grit : Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success by Angela Duckworth (this is very interesting – here is her Ted Talk
Recovery Talks are a forum to share experiences of recovery from Eating Disorders in an intimate small group setting. If would like to come along, more information about our Recovery Talks and registration to attend is available here.
Please join us in extending huge thanks to our recovery speakers so far, including Danielle who has been so generous with her story and her experiences. Thank you!!
We would also love to hear from you, if you are interested in speaking at one of our sessions and sharing your own story. Please email us on RecoveryTalks@BodyMatters.com.au.