Is This ONE Personality Trait Sabotaging Your Eating Goals?
6 Minute Read: Intuitive eating, eating disorder, holistic recovery, perfectionism, healing.
As a Chinese Medicine doctor and eating coach, I hear quite a few people being pretty hard on themselves around weight and diet (after a few too many vacay indulgences, perhaps).
If this is you, and if you’re beating yourself up over recent food choices, I’m here to tell you (with an abundance of loving compassion):
Please stop. And please know that – however you've been eating over summer holiday – it’s okay. You’re okay.
I’m also here to tell you about me as a little girl – and my trombone.
As a fifth grader, brand-new to middle school, I was able to join the school band for the first time. I also got to choose my instrument – an opportunity I took very seriously.
Now, as it was, the vast majority of girls picked either the clarinet or the flute. I chose the trombone.
I was also the smallest kid in my class – much smaller than my chosen instrument. I thought the size difference would be no big thing. I thought that, as with everything else at school, I’d excel.
Turns out the horn was impossible. I hated its unwieldy shape, I hated how buzzing into the mouthpiece numbed my lips, and – most of all – I hated how much I sucked at it.
See, my little girl self was pretty good at a lot things (and generally settled for no less than A+). But the trombone didn’t go that way. Truthfully, I was horrendous.
So I avoided practice...then stressed about avoiding practice...then felt my stomach knot with dread each time I had to show up for rehearsals. On quite a few occasions, I’d set an intention to start putting in the time – even just 15 minutes a night. But then, when I tried to follow through, I would hear how bad I was... and stop, horrified.
After a few years of this, perfectionism ultimately won out. I quit the trombone and never looked back (or tried any instrument ever again).
That’s okay. I mean, I’m doing just fine without the trombone. What’s regrettable is twofold:
The enormous amount of energy, time and peace of mind my little girl self lost, with all that worry
The win for perfectionism, which is an unkind enemy of self, learning and growth
Thing is, trying to get things “perfect” can sabotage efforts to change and learn. Sometimes, it can stand in the way of even getting started.
It can also give rise to all kinds of mean, untrue self-talk and beliefs. It can trick you into believing you’re not okay. That you “should” be something different.
When it comes to shifting eating patterns, I see this a lot. Often, it plays out in one of three ways, all of which can be very painful:
People are so daunted by doing it “perfectly,” they never actually begin.
People are certain they’ll be able to make a complete transformation overnight, only to get frustrated by the natural ups and downs of the change process.
People hold themselves to impossibly strict standards and stick to them for a while...until, exhausted and resentful, they give up the entire project (often swinging in the opposite direction, toward particularly unhealthy eating habits).
If any of these sound familiar, know that you’re not alone. Know too that just being aware of such patterns can help shift them.
Why’s that important? Well, because “addiction to perfectionism” is possibly the biggest enemy of real, lasting change.
Left unchecked, it will almost certainly undermine efforts to create a healthy lifestyle full of enjoyment and ease.
On the other hand, I’m not suggesting you take change efforts too lightly either. It’s just that there’s a balance between finding a degree of flexibility on the one hand...and moving with honest intention, effort and integrity on the other – taking one step after the next (even in the beginning, when it’s hard).
There will, especially at first, be lots of “chopping wood, carrying water” – and just doing the “next right thing.” There will also be lots of trial and error...and weeks that are good and ones that aren’t so much. This is all part of the change process. It’s natural, expected and totally okay.
The optimal balance between effort and flexibility looks different for everyone.
Only you can figure out what balance means for you at any particular point in time. A big part of this is getting really honest and learning to really listen to your body – both what it wants and what it needs to thrive.
Need support in this? Or recognize yourself in the above scenarios?
I invite you to give a simple practice a try – a practice in doing less than perfect. It goes this way:
For 30 days, decide you’re going to be in the “exploration phase” of changing how you eat.
Rather than fixate on whether this or that version of paleo is “best”...or trying to master a complicated set of “can and can’t eats,” prioritize eating an abundance of real, nourishing, delicious food.
This includes high-quality protein, healthy fats, plenty of veggies, and a moderate amount of fruit, nuts and seeds. For some, it can also include high-quality, full-fat dairy. For many, it allows for a “sensible indulgence” every now and again too (dark chocolate, for instance).
At the end of the 30 days, you can “get serious” about next steps (or not). But for now, you’re just giving a new eating pattern a chance...figuring it out...and getting to know what will and won’t work for you.
Thirty days sound too long? Try a week. A week too much? Try a day.
Just make sure to set specific bookends for your less-than-perfect exploration project.
This specificity is really important. It gives you a safe container – one where you can take a break from perfectionism, all the while knowing you can choose to pick it up again after the stretch is over.
If you’re anything like my little girl self obsessing over the trombone, this will be a key piece in getting your mind’s permission to show up for a less-than-perfect practice.
Every year around April, Gena makes “healthy diet” resolutions. Filled with guilt and shame over the weight she’s gained during colder months, she says: “It’s time to get serious about eating better. Starting May 1, I’m cutting sugar and giving clean eating a go.”
Now, when Gena gets serious about something, she gets serious. She’s stellar at work, stellar as a mom, and generally does things full-on and fantastically once she sets her mind to it. Otherwise, she thinks, why bother?
“This year,” she tells herself each April, “I’m really doing it. It’s time for habit shift.” Then she plots out an elaborate set of meal plans and food rules, effective May 1.
There’s no room for fun, ease or exploration – this getting healthy thing is serious business! And it goes pretty well...until around May 15 or possibly June 1, when, willpower exhausted, she swings back the other way and regains any weight she’s lost plus extra.
Now, imagine for a moment, Gena does what's left of this summer differently.
Imagine she gives herself 30 days to try things out...experiment...play. She decrees August 15 Day One of her “perfectionism-proof container.”
One in which she can have fun trying recipes, ordering the latest paleo cookbook, and stocking her pantry with new staples in the lead-up to September.
One in which she can be okay with not getting it perfect, because this is just the learning month. (Then, come mid-September, she’ll decide what's next.)
If Gena’s like most of my clients, I predict the outcomes will be way better (and lasting) than previously. Whaddya think?
I'd love to hear what helps YOU make habit shifts! Please share in the comments!
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