I am a recovering binge eater. I have seen my enemy and its name is perfectionism!
Perfectionism is a two-edged sword
A perfectionist sets high goals and strives to achieve them. That is not a bad thing. The human race, as well as the individual, benefits from the basic desire to always aim higher and higher, and has kept humanity moving forward for thousands of years. Robert Browning said it best: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” If that were all, I’d be happy to call myself a perfectionist. Unfortunately, like so many others, I sometimes confuse the goal of aiming for perfection with the act of actually achieving it. Perfection is seldom, if ever, actually achievable. For most of my life, I was rarely satisfied with any accomplishment. Setting unreasonably high goals, I frequently failed to achieve them. Even when I did, I always had a gnawing sense that the reason I’d succeeded was because I hadn’t aimed high enough. I looked at what I had not accomplished rather than at what I’d done well. A 99% on a test meant I’d missed something I should have known.
Perfectionism can trigger binge eating
The common stereotype in our society is that those of us who binge on massive amounts of food are certainly not perfectionists, but rather are self-indulgent and lazy, and lack the will-power and motivation to change. This is simply not accurate. Many people with binge eating disorder are highly competitive perfectionists who are extremely successful individuals. In fact, one study examined perfectionism and BED, and found that the obese binge-eating group scored significantly higher on perfectionism than the obese non-binge eating group. Even though the negative stereotype of the binge eater is inaccurate, it is still deeply imbedded into our culture and into our psyche. The truth is that perfectionism frequently pushes a person into binge eating, then keeps them locked in that pattern of behavior.
While I know that genetics, a highly-traumatic childhood, and probably a myriad of other factors played their role in setting me up for binge eating, dieting (driven to ever more restrictive extremes by my perfectionism) was the final trigger. As a young girl who developed early, I was frequently taunted because of my large size. As the chorus of Fatty bread, fatty bread rang in my ears, I set out in my early teens to become "socially acceptable" which I thought meant a thin body and stringent dieting. As I "failed" over and over, my sense of worthlessness grew right along with my body mass.
All-or-nothing: the bastard offspring of perfect
The bastard offspring of perfectionism is all-or-nothing. I was either perfect or I was a total failure. This attitude spiraled me into a cycle I couldn't escape for many decades. Months of dieting followed by months of out-of-control eating followed by intense self-loathing kept driving me deeper and deeper into BED. And because I couldn't succeed at having society's ideal body, I pressed harder and harder for academic and professional success in order to feel worthy of respect and love. And all the while, I soothed and comforted myself with food. Perfectionism at work!
Releasing perfectionism, embracing excellence
The following is the opening of a little book called Centering: In Poetry, Pottery, and the Person:
Centering: that act which precedes all others on the potter’s wheel. The bringing of the clay into a spinning, unwobbling pivot, which will then be free to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts.
That simple definition encapsulates a subtle change that took place in my life as I dealt with BED, a change that I’d never found words for but had slowly leaned into as I healed. The transformation in all areas of my life has been remarkable. I didn’t kill my love of food; I simply transformed what I ate from something that destroys into something that nourishes. I didn’t deny my appetite, but instead discovered it, finding joy in food, as well as in other aspects of my life. I’ve transformed impulsiveness into joyous spontaneity, stubbornness into perseverance, and released perfectionism to embrace the pleasure of excellence. Perfectionism had me out-of-pivot, and I needed to find center.
My life has made a subtle, yet powerful shift because I accepted the need for a firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts. Too much yielding and the clay—uncontained and uncontrolled—flies apart, collapses. Too much exertion and the clay is crushed. Throughout my life, I’d been heavy on assertion—will-power, self-reliance, impossible perfectionism—and only yielded when I collapsed in that far-away land of dissociative bingeing. As a result of my lack of centering, my life had repeatedly collapsed, just as the clay collapses when too much exertion is applied.
As both potter and clay, I’ve been able to find that new center. I like this person who can both yield and assert, this person who is now free to just be. My current quest for excellence leaves me so much happier and more fulfilled than my former grasp at perfection.