Anorexia And The Perfectionist Personality | Center for Growth Therapy

Anorexia And The Perfectionist Personality

Alex , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director

Anorexia Treatment in Philadelphia: anorexia and the perfectionist personality.

Many people who have anorexia would describe themselves as perfectionists, and many people trying to recover from anorexia will tell you that they struggle with allowing themselves to be imperfect every day. It makes sense that perfectionism would go with anorexia because both stem from a desire to be in control; allowing yourself to be imperfect is to give up some of that control. A perfectionist is someone who sets goals—usually high goals—and cannot handle the idea of achieving anything less, let alone the reality. The idea of not being in control, not following the path set out by him or her, and not achieving the goal creates anxiety for anorexic people. In turn, they control their food intake because it gives them a sense of control and of perfection. The problem is, life rarely goes as planned, so the anorexia deepens as it becomes dependable for the anorexic person to use to feel better.

There is nothing wrong with setting high goals for one’s self as long as the person can handle struggling to reach those goals, and sometimes not being able to reach them at all. Also, anorexic people are more concerned with perfection, approval from others, and control then actual achievement and progress. They enjoy the ease of anxiety much more than the satisfaction of success. And lastly, anorexic people tend to set goals that limit them from any other options, which creates extreme anxiety because their choices become success or nothing.

When people with anorexia set a goal, in their minds it is fact, and any failure is an indication of how unworthy, lazy, stupid, and incapable they are. They have difficulty coping with their mistakes, and are extremely self-critical. The perfectionist thinking of anorexics comes from rigid assumptions about one’s self and one’s life. These assumptions stem from rigid thoughts of, “if-then,” “should,” and “have-to.” For example, “I have to succeed,” or, “If I don’t succeed, then I am an unworthy person,” or “I should get an A on my test.” Anorexic people live by these kinds of rules, and if they fall short of success, they attribute it to their self worth.

Part of the anorexia treatment in Philadelphia involves learning to change these rigid assumptions and beliefs, and to move away from only accepting perfection. The following activity, often used at the Center for Growth / Anorexia Treatment in Philadelphia will help you identify your own rigid thoughts and assumptions. Once you have identified some of them, you can begin to question them. The goal is to see if your thoughts are indeed so rigid as to be unrealistic or unfair to yourself, and to change those thoughts to more realistic ones. In order to change your thoughts, you will need to see the other options you have.

First, you will need a notebook or piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Start by writing down as many assumption statements, rule statements and standard statements as you can. They don’t have to be complicated, but think about your daily activities, why you do them, and why you do them in the manner that you do. This should help you identify some assumptions right away.

Here are some examples of common perfectionist assumptions among people who have anorexia:

  • If I am not thin, I am ugly
  • I have to exercise longer today than yesterday
  • I should be beautiful
  • I have to get into that school
  • I must get an A on the test
  • If my boss doesn’t like me, then I am unlikeable
  • If I gain weight, people will think I am weak
  • I cannot gain weight

These are just a few examples of assumptions you may be making without knowing how rigid they are, and how much of an effect they have on your behavior. Once you have between 5 and 10 assumptions that you believe and live by, you are ready to start questioning them. For each assumption, ask the following questions:

  • Who established this rule?
  • Do I apply this to everyone? What if my best friend told me she believes this? Would I agree that she should live by this?
  • Is this belief fair? Realistic?
  • What else could it be? What else could happen? What else could I do?
  • How do I benefit from this belief? How do I suffer from this belief? What are the pros and cons of living by this rule?
  • Can I restate this rule as a preference instead of fact?

Restating your assumption is one of the keys to eliminating your perfectionist thoughts that only lead you deeper into anorexia, with a need for control. Lets look at the rule: I have to get into that school. How could we rewrite this as a preference? We could say, “I would prefer to get into that school,” or, “I would like to get into that school,” or, “I would prefer not to be rejected from that school.” This slight change in wording from, “I have,” to “I prefer,” changes the standards you have set for yourself from unrealistic and anxiety provoking, to more realistic and hopefully easier to cope with. Basically, it changes the meaning to: you want to get into that school, but life will go on if you don’t. You can then think of other options for yourself, and you may be just as happy with one of those. Feeling that you HAVE to get into the school or the world will crumble will put a lot of pressure on you and cause you a lot of anxiety. As a result, you will look to anorexia to feel better. Instead, try rephrasing your thoughts so that you recognize that other options for your life exist if things don’t go as you planned.

By identifying your rigid assumptions, questioning them, and trying to rephrase them into preferences as opposed to rules, laws or scientific facts, you can cope with your need for perfectionism. This is a step in the right direction to recovering from anorexia. Keep in mind, you will always have to restructure your thoughts, but it will get easier with practice.

If you are struggling, help is available. Call 267-324-9564 Center for Growth / Anorexia Treatment in Philadelphia.

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