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Can perfectionism lead you to overeat?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | June 21, 2011

It might seem counterintuitive to think that striving for perfection would be related to overeating. Shouldn’t perfectionism, after all, be related to a desire to have the “perfect” figure? The answer, as it turns out, is yes, but recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology(Sherry and Hall, 2009) shows us how unrealistic expectations — a hallmark of perfectionism– can backfire and lead us to sabotage our own goals.

Researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Waterloo recruited 566 women to take part in a 7-day diary study of their eating behavior. All told, the researchers collected close to 4,000 diary entries. The diaries captured instances of binge eating (defined in the research as consuming a lot of food quickly and uncontrollably in a short period of time), and allowed the researchers to analyze some of the triggers that precipitated the overeating.

Corset - Perfection WaistThe researchers found a strong relationship between binge eating and socially prescribed perfectionism— the kind of perfectionism in which you feel like you can never meet others’ expectations, and in which you try very hard to avoid disappointing others. Unsurprisingly, over the course of the diary study, these perfectionists ended up constantly feeling like they let others down, which led to both depression and further worrying about what others thought of them.

Interestingly, the feeling of letting other people down directly led to extreme efforts to restrict caloric intake– things like skipping meals, or refusing food or drink altogether. It’s almost as if socially prescribed perfectionism leads people to attempt to gain the ever-elusive approval of others by trying to — yes– achieve that “perfect” figure. But as I discuss in this blog post, extreme patterns of dietary restraint lead to caloric deprivation (and extreme hunger!), which then predispose us to binge in our private, vulnerable moments.

Not all dieting efforts, of course, are related to socially prescribed perfectionism. But if you struggle with yo-yo diets, and can relate to the feeling of constantly feeling like you can never meet others’ standards, it may be worth thinking about how the two may be related. The change you need may not lie in the newest diet as much as in recognizing that you cannot be everything to everyone… and that that’s OK.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved; cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Can perfectionism lead you to overeat?

  1. I found this article very eye-opening. I do find myself trying to please everyone and feel frustration with myself leads to over-eating. Thank you for the clarification – I need to work on my inner self.

  2. Overweight so commonly to the people was not having a self-disciple and they should take care of controlling eating therefore, they don’t have a lots diseases.

  3. Thank you for sharing this article. Most people don’t completely realize or understand the psychological aspects of being overweight. It’s not always about eating too much or not being active enough. Sometimes the problem goes deeper and the way a person thinks has a lot to do with it.

  4. I believe one of the interesting aspects of the study at Dalhousie University and the University of Waterloo was they chose women exclusively. With the media bombarding the public day-in and day-out with images of women whose primary job is to look great it is no wonder that some women would feel compelled to chase the “perfect image” with often disastrous results. As Pamela Martin noted in her comment an individual’s self-esteem and self-image will play an important role in how they handle the need to soothe themselves. If one can find a way to soothe yourself without food and combine those skills with a positive self-image then they will be able to avoid the negative consequences of binge eating.

  5. Overeating and willpower aren’t even on the same page, because overeating is always intentional and serves a purpose, if not many purposes. Perfectionism is one of them. At least an attempt to perfectionism is. To think that perfectionism is an unattainable state, as there isn’t a single living being nor non-living object that is flawless. In the end, it is an illusion of sorts. The constant striving and ultimately failure to get there, leads to feelings of desperation and a gnawing feeling that we’re just not good enough, because if we were, we’d get there. And then the urge to overeat sets in, that is appeased when no one is looking by a large heaping plate of pasta, that not only knocks your socks off, but the fullness in the tummy numbs the negative feelings of unworthiness. Sadly, when the last bite is swallowed, more negative feelings are to be dealt with like hopelessness for having messed it all up again, and despite wanting to give up, an positive feeling comes to the rescue that promises tomorrow will be the “perfect” day.

  6. The links between perfectionism, self-esteem, and self-image and overeating have been explored by a number of significant women writers for decades, notably Susie Orbach and Geneen Roth, among many others. “Perfectionism” can, and does, lead to overeating. This is not so difficult to comprehend as it might at first sound if one keeps in mind the soothing effect of eating. Reaching for food as an antidote to uncomfortable feelings is a common response for many people. Those with punitively high standards of achievement and control can readily respond to this behavior (and its resultant internal sense of self-hate) with an intensified drive to to engage in more eating, eg binge eating. The only way that I know of coping with this response is deeply paradoxical, and involves tremendous trust, and that is releasing–if temporarily–control over the drive to overeat. Those caught in this cycle of stress-eat-heightened stress-eat more and so on have no way out other than to drop all attempts to ‘control’ their eating, and to ‘legitimize’ any and all food intake, thereby eliminating-gradually-the source of their self-hatred.

    Obviously, this process is typically a long one, involving deep personal growth and insight.

  7. Overweight people are commonly demonized and seen as lazy and ignorant.
    Thank you for this article reminding us that overweightness is often more complicated, and is emotionally/psychologically based — not just a matter of willpower, self-discipline and information.

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