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Perfectionism and Eating Disorders: How Perfectionist Traits Can Lead to Eating Disorders

We all turn to food for comfort at times. For instance, we may turn to emotional eating when we don’t know how to deal with or express extreme feelings like anger, grief, loneliness, or fear.  Even though this isn’t always a bad habit, when you use food to deal with problems, you get stuck in unhealthy ways of coping, which can lead to disordered eating. Keep reading to learn about how perfectionism and eating disorders frequently go hand-in-hand. 

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders (ED), according to experts, can be caused by various factors, including: 

  • Geneticsi
  • Differences in brain functions – various studies confirm alternations in serotonin and dopamine levels in persons with eating disorders. People with anorexia nervosa (AN)  feel better when they starve themselves, according to renowned eating disorder researcher Walter Kaye, since hunger lowers levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. When people with anorexia resume eating, their serotonin levels soar,  producing mental anguish and acute anxiety.ii
  • Other mental health issues – research shows that eating disorders are closely related to mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social phobia. 
  • Culturally accepted ideals of thinness. 
  • Personality traits like neuroticism, impulsivity (linked to bulimia and binge eating),iii and  perfectionism (anorexia and bulimia).iv

Why Do High-Achievers Suffer from Eating Disorders? 

How we view ourselves is heavily influenced by our sense of self-worth. High-achievers associate this sense of self-worth with their careers, placing a high value on their accomplishments and how others see them. 

Many people believe you can only be successful at your job if you are passionate about it. On the contrary, a healthy occupational identity shows how aware we are of ourselves as workers.  It helps us build a part of who we are around our work. But our professional identity may become essential to how we feel about ourselves. 

High-achieving professionals are committed to their careers and passionate about what they accomplish. However, this devotion frequently crosses the line into an intense fear of failure and an obsession with perfectionism in all aspects of a person’s life. 

High-achieving women frequently struggle with creating unreasonably high expectations for themselves, feeling that they must always live up to such standards, so they don’t let themselves or others down. 

They do well in challenging environments, thrive on acceptance from others, and are relentless in their pursuit of perfection. 

If you are a high achiever, having control over every aspect of your life obviously makes you feel good about yourself because it helps you feel autonomous, authoritative, and confident. On the other hand, feeling like you don’t have control causes them to feel stressed out, anxious, and depressed.

This constant need to prove yourself and control everything can quickly become an obsession with physical appearance and food. 

Calorie restriction and weight loss make people with ED feel good about themselves, giving them a sense of control and satisfaction. 

Furthermore, one study discovered that high achievers’ distorted connection with food compensates for negative feelings caused by stress in personal and academic life by making them feel good about having control over something in their lives (e.g., losing weight).v 

What Is the Role of Early Childhood in the Development of Eating Disorders?

Our upbringing and early childhood experiences frequently influence perfectionism. For example, according to research, people with eating disorders grew up in families with rigid parents who always set unreasonably high goals. 

When parents or caregivers have unrealistic expectations and focus too much on external incentives, a child may strive for perfection in every aspect of their lives, including body image and physical appearance. If they have not met their family’s expectations, they may resort to anything that looks to be easily controlled to feel successful, such as caloric intake management and physical beauty. 

So, people who grew up in unstable attachment families tend to believe they are not good enough, turning into perfectionists and setting unrealistically high standards for themselves and others. 

For example, if you have anorexia, you may obsess about being thin and experience excessive anxiety about gaining weight. You may be self-conscious about your looks, have a distorted body image, and deny being dangerously underweight. You may also suffer from obsessive-compulsive symptoms and be preoccupied with food-related obsessive thoughts. 

Or, if you have bulimia, you may maintain an average weight. But you might obsess about your weight and appearance and be hard on yourself for perceived flaws. 

As a result, your weight and body shape will significantly influence your self-esteem, and you may resort to frequent purging to avoid weight gain. 

What is the Relationship Between Trauma and Eating Disorders?

While genetics and personality qualities can all play a role in the development of EDs, it is believed that a history of childhood trauma is one of the most common factors linked to eating disorders. 

The trauma of experiencing abuse as a child is greater than the average person’s capacity to deal with adversity. Thus, trauma may have devastating effects on a person’s health and behavior, frequently rendering them more predisposed to mental health illnesses or addictive behaviors. 

In particular, studies have shown that childhood anxiety problems increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia nervosa in adulthood.vivii

Many individuals who had difficult childhoods are still affected by trauma. According to studies,  all types of childhood abuse are related to an increased risk of developing an eating disorder in adolescence and adulthood. viii 

Studies examining the link between emotional abuse and eating disorders showed that children subjected to emotional abuse were just as likely as those exposed to sexual or physical abuse to develop eating problems.ix 

If you were emotionally abused as a child, you were most likely taught that you were not good,  pretty, smart, or worthy enough since emotional abuse manifests itself via constant criticism and insults. 

Over time, you internalize these abusive remarks about yourself as your own beliefs. This can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, body image issues, and self-criticism, making you vulnerable to eating disorders. 

Trauma can push the neurological system beyond its ability to self-regulate, creating problems with mood, emotional regulation, and behavior. Furthermore, trauma-associated painful memories and feelings don’t fade with time. 

Instead, they may impact your conscious thoughts and actions, resulting in chronic stress and mental health issues like eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. So, you start to use your relationship with food as a way to keep control and stay away from trauma. 

How Can Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Help?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy that helps people focus their energy on getting better instead of dwelling on the past by making them more mentally flexible. 

This objective is met by assisting clients in focusing on the present moment and accepting their  thoughts and feelings without judgment. 

Cognitive Fusion and Defusion

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is founded on the premise that when a person is completely fused with their negative thoughts, such as “I am a failure,” they cannot separate themselves from such thoughts and related negative feelings. 

When you become fused to eating disordered thoughts, you identify with them, believing what your mind tells you and letting this belief completely dominate your mood and behavior. This can cause a lot of pain and significantly harm your health. 

According to ACT, when you become entangled with your ideas and beliefs, you lose focus on the present moment and direct experience. This creates space for automatic negative thoughts  (ANTs) such as labeling, generalizing, all-or-nothing thinking, guilt pounding, and so on,  trapping you in a cycle of self-blame and self-sabotage. 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help treat eating disorders by teaching cognitive defusion.

Defusion is a skill to separate and detach yourself from your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. It is a process of learning that your thoughts are just thoughts. 

Cognitive defusion is observing your internal processes mindfully without allowing them to dictate your emotions and behavior – “Looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts.”x 

When you recognize your thoughts and feel engrossed in them, it is vital to identify them. Then,  without self-judgment, you embrace your ideas and let them go. 

ACT focuses on this process of cognitive defusion and uses mindfulness as the best tool to reduce your thoughts and emotions from influencing your behavior and experiences. 

Acceptance

Acceptance is another core process of ACT. During ACT, your therapist will encourage you to embrace past experiences without trying to change them in any way but to feel them without avoidance fully. 

Avoidance is a distinctive feature of anxiety disorders. When you feel anxious, avoidance makes you feel less agitated and fearful, resulting in a quick anxiety reduction. However, when you are eventually forced to deal with stress, the experience can be pretty overwhelming, exacerbating anxiety and making you more vulnerable to eating disorders. 

ACT therapists use four additional processes to decrease maladaptive coping mechanisms such as calorie restriction, binge eating, purging, or excessive exercising and help clients develop psychological flexibility. These processes involve mindfulness, detachment, clarity, and committed action. 

Final Thoughts on Perfectionism and Eating Disorders

Thank you for reading this resource on perfectionism and eating disorders. If you suffer from an eating disorder, there is hope. Find eating disorder professionals who can help

References 

i https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/7854_2010_79

ii https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkit/parent-toolkit/neurotransmitters

iii https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4685732/ 

iv https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735810000723?via%3Dihub 

v https://www.educationmattersmag.com.au/the-links-between-academic-failure-and-eating disorders-in-high-achievers/ 

vi http://eatingdisorders.ucsd.edu/bio/walter-kaye-md.html 

vii https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15569892/

viii https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8860810/  

ix https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10640260701454337 

x  https://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/ACT_Made_Simple_Introduction_and_first_two_chapters.pdf

 

Kamini Wood
Author: Kamini Wood

Hi, I’m Kamini Wood! I am passionate about working with Adults and children of all ages who are overcoming challenges such as stress and overwhelm, codependency, seeking external validation, or continually working to please others around them. I believe all people are deserving of the life they actually want!

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Great option to find a online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
  • $40 to $88 per week, billed monthly
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