There are a lot of hurdles when it comes to getting a body and life you love. Most of the hurdles don’t exist in the world around you though, they exist within you. This is why I’ve dedicated much of my work to the psychology of behavior modification.
One of the most common psychological challenges is perfectionism. It’s rampant. The seeds of perfectionism are planted so deep and for so long that some degree of perfectionism is sown into nearly all of us.
How could it not be? From day one, there is tremendous pressure placed on you to think and behave a certain way. To be a certain person. Every day is centered around whether or not you live up your family’s expectations first and society’s expectations second. This is strategic programming that you’re subjected to ad nauseum that’s tough to break free from later in life.
Schools plant the seeds of perfectionism early and often.
School is marketed as “a place of excellence.” There’s nothing wrong with excellence, but schools (with the help of other institutions and family systems) lead children to a mindset beyond excellence.
A ranking system—the grading scale—was designed less for teachers to determine a student’s needs and more for students to know their place. How excellent are you? Are you perfect?
Within this system, perfection is theoretically attainable. Students can score a perfect 100. And it’s all based on the lie that the closer to perfect you are, the better your life will be later. Better grades get you into a better college which gets you a better job so you can afford a better car, a better home, and a better family. This, of course, is a lie as the economy has completely changed and the school system has failed to keep up with it.
The grading system controls all. There is little to no care for how kids feel, what their interests are, how effective teachers are, how effective the curriculum is, or anything else of legitimate relevance. If you jump through the hoops the way you’re expected to and taught to (which often means thinking a certain way as well), then you win the praise of all involved. If you don’t, you’re medicated, shamed, guilted, and left behind. In this environment, perfectionism is survival.
Parents plant the seeds of perfectionism every day of your life.
Parents willingly act as the enforcement arm for schools. They reinforce the
grading ranking system, police homework and projects, and dutifully get kids ready to do it all again tomorrow.
Beyond that, parents often call out children for every little mistake. The idea is that children are imperfect balls of clay who need to be molded into what the parent sees as acceptable.
Obedience is cherished. You’re taught to “be on your best behavior” in public, which an outsider would usually describe as “perfect” behavior. And how often do outsiders praise parents for perfectly obedient children (which, by the way, is not a virtue)? All. The. Time. And they don’t hesitate to scoff when children aren’t measuring up.
The real damage is done in how this “molding” occurs though. The favorite tools of parents are those of conditional love. Carrots and sticks. Acceptable, desirable behavior is rewarded with stickers, prizes, and affection. Less than perfect behavior comes with harsh penalties: forced isolation (time out), spanking, theft of property or resources, and the withdrawal of affection (seen as the withdrawal of love).
In the child’s mind, not being perfect can result in the feeling of not being loved. In the worst cases, the child feels as if they aren’t worthy of love. As the connection to parents is the most important thing in a child’s life, children put immense pressure on themselves to measure up and meet all sorts of unrealistic expectations. In this environment, perfectionism is the ticket to not being rejected by the tribe you’re reliant on.
Religion plants the seeds of perfectionism (in the worst way possible).
You were born imperfect. No, worse than that. You were born a bad person. It is this imperfection that separates you from The Almighty. And only through your devotion to living a perfect life as outlined by your religion (an impossible feat) can you redeem yourself, else you burn in Hell for eternity.
This, of course, is the most powerful seed of perfectionism because the outcome of your very soul rests upon this single idea. You realize that perfectionism is unattainable, but the gravity of the consequences—damnation to the lake of fire—forces you to try. Hopelessly. Forever.
Even more concerning, awkward, and warped is the idea that the person who will damn you to Hell for key mis-steps, loves you. Because sometimes people who love you do awful things to you. Is this the kind of programming that leads children to accept parents who do awful things? Is this the kind of programming that leads children to tolerate self-destructive behavior? I wouldn’t doubt it. Warping what love looks like is a powerful tool of manipulation.
Many people may argue that religion doesn’t always lead you to chase perfectionism directly via your behavior. And that may be true. But that’s not the only way perfectionism is bred. Often, perfectionism is bred simply through the fear of not being enough. And religion has a strong track record of letting people know that they’re not enough on their own.
The Media sell perfectionism.
Walk the aisles at any grocery store and you’ll see magazines with cover photos made to perfection. Not because the people look perfect, but because they’re made to appear perfect. Lights. Camera. Action. Photoshop. Decade after decade you’re inundated with these images.
But it’s not just magazines. It’s princesses, dolls, movies, comic books, and Saturday morning cartoons. It’s Cindarella’s waist and it’s Barbie’s everything.
The result is an entire population of human beings longing for the perfect body. And wanting that perfect body so badly they’ll work to achieve it by any means necessary: severe restriction, orthorexia, plastic surgery, eating disorders, insane exercise practices, and pills.
In this environment, perfectionism is status. It’s attention. It’s approval. It’s esteem.
You’re not perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. You have my permission to not be perfect.
You don’t need my permission, but sometimes that’s what people are standing around waiting for. It’s quite possible that I’m the only person you’ve ever come in contact with who told you those three things: you’re not perfect; you don’t have to be perfect; you have my permission to not be perfect.
This won’t immediately release you from the hungry jaws of perfectionism that are currently trying to crush your soul, but it’s a good start. On top of offering that, I’m going to offer you five additional truths about perfectionism as it relates to getting a body and life you love.
Truth #1: Perfectionism will get you a body you love and a life you hate.
Although heralded as a great thing, perfectionism is almost as a handicap. Perfectionists are vulnerable to distress, haunted by a chronic sense of failure, indecisive, and full of shame.
When perfectionism is tied to health and fitness, you end up with a body you love and a life you hate. The amount of time, effort, and obsession required to inch closer and closer to the perfect body is maddening. And the process always requires that you behave in a way that is antithetical to your biological and psychological programming. Your body does not want to look like the girl or guy on the magazine cover. It can’t. Perfectionism in health and fitness is the state of being consumed by a fairy tale.
So pushing toward this unnatural goal day after day creates a life that you can’t enjoy. It’s a roller coaster that never stops, never makes you happy, and never fulfills you as a human being.
Truth #2: Perfectionism manipulates your relationship with food, your body, and your self.
As perfection over-rides authentic behaviors, Orthorexia and exercise addiction follow. Full blown eating disorders are common as well.
The disordered relationship with food comes from perfectionism’s requirement that eating habits and patterns be manipulated. You starve yourself when you’re hungry. You avoid certain social situations. You refuse to eat anything that’s not “clean” or “on plan.”
The disordered relationship with your body comes from unrealistic expectations. And from constant analysis and comparison. The concern is never authentic, it’s superficial. It’s empty.
The disordered relationship with your self comes from the fear, shame, and guilt that goes hand-in-hand with all of this disorder that’s swallowing your life. It also comes from the deep-seated feeling that you aren’t worthy of love because you can’t achieve “the look.” Or if you’ve achieved a look that draws attention, you become trapped by the fear that people will stop paying attention to you if you fail to maintain it.
Finally, your true self isn’t the perfectionist. Perfectionism disconnects you from your true self. The “self-talk” that you experience via perfectionism is not actually self-talk, it’s other-talk. It’s the voice of your mom or dad, your teacher, or your pastor. And it’s the voice you must quiet if you have any hope of setting your true self free.
Truth #3: Perfectionism enslaves you to external sources of worth.
Perfectionists struggle to feel relief until their effort makes some other person happy. This is called other-esteem, which is the antithesis of self-esteem.
This is the start of losing sight of your authentic self. As you go deeper into perfectionism, you begin to act like a body possessed by someone else. Your behaviors and habits are modified to match what you think others expect. This is especially true because perfectionism’s common partner in crime is people pleasing.
You can see this process begin in children from a very young age. The classic question, “Did I do a good job?” is the first symptom. When we constantly judge children (which is what most schooling and parenting has become), they lose the ability to judge themselves. They become reliant on our judgements, especially since those judgements also tend to be attached to the degree of love and affection they may get.
It’s not a far jump to go from that point to believing other people’s judgements determine your worth. This is complicated by the fact that children struggle to see a difference between “what you did was bad” and “you’re bad.” If you’re a parent, be careful.
Truth #4: Perfectionism unrelated to health and fitness can still be related to health and fitness.
It’s a mistake to think that perfectionism will only lead to disordered eating and exercise if your perfection is focused on eating, exercise, or body image. This is not the case. Perfectionism in anything can lead to disordered eating and exercise habits.
Perfectionism is a source of great stress. Food and exercise are easy coping mechanisms for stress. Even if your perfectionism is confined to the workplace, the stress created by that perfectionism can bleed into disordered eating and exercise habits as you struggle to medicate that stress. Perfectionism can also lead to drug abuse, especially when the perfectionist is failing to measure up.
This is why I’m always bringing up what I call the Body-Life Paradox. Most people understand that failing health will cause a failing life, but they miss that a failing life will cause failing health (and failing habits related to health). You can’t change one without changing the other and expect your results to stick. This is why I help people get a body and life they love and not just a body they love.
Truth #5: Perfectionism is the primary cause of failure.
I’ve worked with men and women in over 30 countries around the world. I’ve seen my fair share of failure at the hands of perfectionism. It’s one of the reasons I was inspired to write this article—to help those who struggle with perfectionism understand the challenge. Here’s five ways that perfectionism leads to failure:
- Perfectionism turns minor setbacks into major incidents. Eating a donut is not the end of your health and fitness journey. In the context of everything you’re doing, it’s meaningless. But perfectionists struggle to see it that way. The ingestion of a donut represents a breakdown in expectations. The shame and guilt that follow begin constructing a massive failure snowball that leads to more destructive behavior and thinking.
- Perfectionism blocks you from comprehending important context. Perfectionists fail to understand context in all things, not just donut eating. They’re completely unable to adopt a sensible approach, such as my bank account philosophy. They begin to believe that success is dependent on perfection. Nothing less than 100% is acceptable and they claim the same is true for others through their dogma and zealotry. Zero context.
- Perfectionism makes you deaf to authentic coaching. Great coaches understand the 30,000 foot view of the challenge. They understand and communicate the context. They understand pace. And they don’t demand perfection. This doesn’t align well with how perfectionists think. So the perfectionist often overrides what their coach tells them. They refuse to back off and slow down. They struggle to let go of dogma and zealotry. This disconnection harms the coaching relationship and usually ends in failure…
- Perfectionism causes Shiny Object Syndrome. Perfectionists have no patience. When a coach reassures them that they’re doing fine and they’re on the right track, they still feel like a failure. They believe that progress is happening too slowly. They begin to second-guess the coach and the process. This is the main cause of people quitting within the first 30-60 days. Their perfectionism begs them to jump ship and climb aboard the Next Best Looking Thing™…
- Perfectionism creates a failure loop. Perfectionism often manifests as a form of mania. And it creates a fantasy world where the out-of-control feel completely in control. This is antithetical to the behavior and mindset that breeds success. So any time a perfectionist succeeds, failure always follows. And then the cycle must repeat. It is the mania of perfectionism that helps drive the yo-yo weight loss cycle. Periods of perfect behavior follow periods of being completely off the rails. Real success is never achieved.
You can beat perfectionism!
For now, absorb as much of this as you can with an open mind. There are many challenging statements and ideas presented in part one that may need to be digested slowly. You’re also welcome to leave comments below. I will be participating in the comments.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.