Perfectionism, in the most basic terms, is the drive towards ‘perfection’ in all that one does or in the tasks or accomplishments one strives for. It often involves setting a high bar for oneself, measuring one’s self-worth via productivity and setting perhaps unrealistic goals.
A lot of the time people think of perfectionism as a kind of humble brag claim that one would make in a job interview. Saying you just want to do everything ‘perfectly’ can seem like a way of claiming that you have high standards which you can actually measure up to, have a high skill levels and are somewhat meticulous in your work. Of course, it sounds like a good thing – particularly in an intensely productivity focused, hyper-capitalistic context.
In fact, the capitalistic focus on intense productive output seems to lend itself well to a certain degree of perfectionism, or what may look like perfectionism. That’s why a lot of the articles and literature like to distinguish between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism or, as I like to call it, profitable and unprofitable perfectionism. If these traits end up lending themselves to high productivity in the workplace, for example, they are something to be applauded and unproblematic. When they begin to impact on that performance, then we start to have a problem.
In a way I thought of my anorexia this way – it was very functional, until it wasn’t. That is, until it stopped me from working and stopped me from participating in all of the activities I valued myself for. Anorexia is closely associated with perfectionist traits. I have to admit, I found this emphasis deeply frustrating when I first began to try and understand my illness. I’m critical of anything that emphasises ‘personality’ as a key foundation for mental illness because most of the time it ends up being a way of victim blaming or making a claim that there is something inherent about a person that caused them to be ill. Professionals will often use this as an excuse to withhold treatment or say someone has ‘complex needs’ which they cannot possibly hope to address.
I don’t think that ‘personality’ is a stable thing across one’s lifetime nor is it something that cannot change. The controversial labels of ‘personality disorders’ play into a kind of logic that some people are just inherently ‘insane’ or ‘unstable’ or ‘non-compliant’. To describe something as a ‘personality traits’ seems to betray a kind of determinism that essentially leaves people open to neglect by medical professionals. Even whilst acknowledging that things like BPD/EUPD seem to stem from things like childhood trauma still there is a persistence in the ‘personality’ explanation as well. I fail to see how something that is demonstrably a trauma response is a part of one’s ‘personality’, really and the only people this seems to serve is professionals who want to label patients as ‘difficult’ and ‘resistant to treatment’.
Similarly, I don’t think describing someone as having a trait of ‘perfectionism’ is a viable explanation for their eating disorder. I think some of the traits associated with perfectionism are certainly things that can play into the development of and perpetuation of the eating disorder but I don’t think they arise in a vacuum as some sort of inescapable natural tendency. Why would someone end up being so hard on themselves? Why would they set unobtainable goals? Why would they value productivity so highly? I don’t think one would without some sort of external validation of these traits.
I haven’t published a blog post here in a while. I have three or four drafts of different potential posts that I can’t get round to finishing. Part of this has, admittedly, been because of the high standard I have set for myself in what I ought to publish. I need to do the right research, I need to link to all my sources with good studies otherwise what I say won’t mean anything to anyone. Where does this standard come from? Did I pluck it from thin air or does it actually come from my years spent within academia where this is a necessary part of any writing one does? Did I not internalise this and begin to raise my standards over time as I got positive responses from this type of post? Do I not take every compliment and build it into my new standard that I need to meet every time now?
This is a process that takes place in my own mind, of course, but I also think it is not without it’s external logic and validation. We are taught about productivity from a young age, perhaps our teachers or our parents put pressure on us to perform. Or perhaps nobody puts pressure on us and we feel, therefore, we’ve something to prove. Particularly when one is from an oppressed group there is a far higher standard for our work than for those in the oppressor group. The standards, then, do not come from nowhere. Perhaps we internalise this in different ways but it does not take place in a vacuum.
Wanting to set and achieve goals is, from what we can observe, a natural human tendency. We get hormonal rewards from it – dopamine, oxytocin etc. Perhaps some people’s rewards systems is wired a little differently, their neurotype is a little different. Either way, it seems to be something that we are wired to do. Part of my anorexia was very much based on this tendency – to set myself goals and to reach them. I gained a sense of achievement from it, even when it was short lived. This led to compulsive behaviour, obsession and damaging behaviour.
Another part of anorexia is never feeling you have done ‘enough’ and so the rewards system is always short lived yet intoxicating. The ‘perfectionist’ traits play into this – the unrealistic goals, the higher and higher bar for oneself. To me, this makes sense as one explanation as to why the eating disorder would persist even whilst it clearly did damage and made one miserable. It certainly felt like a motivation to me at times – to set myself goals and suffer enough to meet them. I don’t think it’s the only explanation – as I have explained in previous posts I think there are some biological components to the compulsivity of the behaviour – but it is a tendency that can play into the functionality of the eating disorder.
People often describe their disordered thoughts as having a ‘voice’ that is somewhat separate to them, often a ‘critical voice’ – a term used fairly routinely in therapy. My therapist’s explanation of the voice is that it may be ‘protective’ or have some sort of function that helps you to feel safe. In this case, if you hold the belief that food is a threat then this voice is attempting to protect you from that ‘threat’. Similarly, in order to protect you from the threat and encourage avoidant behaviours there is a degree to which the goal setting can motivate you to stay the course even whilst you are suffering. Thus, perfectionism could be seen as a way of making sure that we are motivated in some way even whilst it ultimately ends up paralysing us for fear of failure.
This is why recovery for things like eating disorders and OCD tend to work on helping your brain to understand that the thing that it sees as a threat is not, in fact, a threat. This is why things like cognitive behavioural therapy, done well, can be particularly useful in these cases. You are rewiring your brain’s fear response.
When you are doing this your brain does all kind of mad shit to get you to NOT. This is where the perfectionism comes in, the ‘critical voice’. When I want to eat I’ll often feel ‘overwhelmed’ by the choices of food I have – what if it doesn’t taste as good as I hope? What if it isn’t an exactly nutritionally balanced as a meal? What if I feel disappointed by the meal in some way? Better just to not have it to avoid these things. There is a kind of perfectionism around the food itself that sets unrealistic standards for it which, in turn, work as a way to prevent the threat. So, the perfectionism functions as way for the brain to avoid threatening situations entirely by catastrophising them.
These feelings leak into other tasks as well – I put a large amount of pressure on myself to do things perfectly to the point where I end up not doing them at all because I know I won’t be able to meet those standards. This has been a pattern in my life – I am very ‘all or nothing’ in my participation because I feel I cannot possibly do anything to a lower standard than I would like. Again, part of therapy is working on this and allowing myself to do things to a lower standard and also allowing other people to help me. Letting other people become involved in your tasks is very challenging when you want a large degree of control in order to maintain the ‘perfection’ that you envisage. A good way to challenge perfectionism is to allow yourself to invite the so-called imperfection of others (of course, you are not really perfect nor is your way of doing things!).
In this vein, I will allow this post to be short and imperfect. I will allow this post to not have too many links to ‘the research’ and I will allow myself to publish it sooner rather than later and not to ruminate so hard. Perhaps I can do this with some other unfinished posts. The process is more important than the outcome. That’s therapy, baby.