Perfectionism Doesn’t Serve You - by Sasha High MD

Aug 11, 2020

I want to talk about Perfectionism and why it doesn’t serve you. But let’s start with what perfectionism is and is not.

Perfectionism is defined as “a refusal to accept any standard less than perfection”. Many people misunderstand perfectionism to be pursuing excellence. But excellence and perfection are actually two very different things.

Pursuing excellence involves a willingness to grow, to get it wrong, to make mistakes and then do better next time.

Perfectionism is the mentality of “I won’t do this unless it’s 100% perfect. I can’t make mistakes.” Perfectionism internalizes mistakes as personal failures. Perfectionism actually keeps you stuck because you can’t move forward unless you have a guarantee of success, and at the first sign of an obstacle, you bail. It generates a lot of worry, concern of letting others or yourself down, and self-defeated thinking.

Excellence on the other hand is empowering. Excellence requires you to take steps forward in order to grow, to become a better version of yourself. I love excellence. It is in my top 3 core values both personally and professionally. It is the number one core value that is used to guide my business. It’s even listed on our clinic website. Excellence is humble - it requires you to be aware of your shortcomings with humility, and to be willing to pursue new knowledge, and to learn from others. Excellence is about giving your best in effort, but not expecting perfection in the result. Perfectionism is focused only on the results.

Perfectionism produces black and white thinking. Only one outcome is the right one - the perfect one - and everything else falls short and is unacceptable. Another way to think about this is the All or Nothing Mentality.

The problem with the all or nothing mentality is that it works great when you’re all in, but it is terrible when you’re all out. This comes up all the time with people who are trying to lose weight. They’re 100% super duper strict with their newest diet…. until they’re not. And then it’s all over. If you only learn to function within this very tight box of a diet, or a specific meal plan, or shakes or food products, but have no coping skills when you find yourself outside of this box, you haven’t really developed behavioural skills to fall back on that are going to serve you longterm. All or Nothing Thinking is a major cause of yo-yo dieting.

All or nothing thinking is also often accompanied by a very strict protocol of what is considered acceptable. Certain foods are good, other foods are bad. I really steer away from calling foods good or bad, because labeling something bad and then you eat it, generates more negative emotion that tends to perpetuate self-defeating behaviours. And this good/bad, strict protocol usually creates a greater sense of deprivation and restriction - which as I’ve mentioned before are not helpful feelings when trying to stick to an eating plan longterm. Are there foods that don’t serve you or aren’t ideal? Absolutely. Are they bad? No. They’re just foods that you have the choice to consume or not consume.

Another place this thinking is problematic is when you’re focused on the scale. When you have a perfectionist mentality, you’re results focused - so if I do abc, then the scale should do xyz. And remember I told you how the calories in, calories out model is flawed because your body has a lot of biological mechanisms that control weight beyond this simple math equation. If you constantly have this expectation that the scale will go down at a predictable rate, you will end up disappointed by this unrealistic expectation.

#1. So what I propose is - what if 70% is better than 0%?

What if when you find yourself not perfectly “on plan”, you still try to make mindful choices. Even if that means you’re choosing to have a scoop of icecream, it just means you’re going to stick with that one scoop of icecream, without also having the waffle, and the chocolate syrup, and then getting derailed because you’re already off plan so you might as well just keep eating and forget your “diet” until next Monday. In cognitive behavioural therapy, these types of thoughts are called Distortions - the idea that “well, I’m already off track, so I may as well continue to go further off track.” Your brain is trying to relieve the discomfort of being off your plan by telling you to abandon your plan, but really the result is that actually takes you further off course.

#2. What if setbacks are a learning opportunity instead of a personal failure? What is you could learn to look at setbacks with a non-judgmental lens and learn from them so you can grow and do a little better next time?

#3. What if you start to notice when your brain starts to beat you up for not being perfectly on plan? And instead choose to reframe it more positively so that your thinking generates effective actions - behaviours that lead you in the direction of the person you want to be.

I want to encourage you to keep moving forward with imperfect action.

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