What’s Wrong with Being A Perfectionist


On a recent show, Oprah declined to taste fine chocolate brought to her by a guest who carried the chocolate thousands of miles from her home in a foreign country “just for Oprah’s lips.”  Oprah’s reason for declining:  “I’m starting my Oprah boot camp today and can’t have any chocolate for six weeks.” 

So let me get this straight – does that mean chocolate is at the root of Oprah’s eating/weight struggles?  And totally cutting it out for six weeks is going to solve things?

This reminds me of someone I know who has seen incredible success in reaching her health and fitness goals.  She almost devoted her life to getting to a healthy weight by eating well, staying active and trying to change her idea about what’s acceptable in terms of her body.

But recently she hit a few bumps in the road.  A family member became ill, she changed jobs, she’s having to study for a new credential – all adding up to a lot on her plate.  And she felt herself sliding down that slippery slope to relapse – not because she felt the desire to eat to calm herself or any of those old habits – but because she believed if she couldn’t do it all, she wasn’t doing enough.  She wasn’t getting in all the walking and strength training that she thought she needed to stay fit. 

What she’s really struggling with, however, isn’t her failure to stay as active as she’d like.  Nor do most people’s eating struggles really have anything to do with a piece of chocolate.  My friend’s problem is her mindset of perfectionism, and that’s also one reason many people can’t eat one piece of chocolate without eating the whole box.  Perfectionism can sabotage you and is something that many women struggle with.  But it’s all in how you look at it.

Perfectionism creates a drive to do things well.  It offers motivation and pushes us to pay attention to details.  We can use it to help us achieve our goals.  But perfectionism can be taken too far and consequences.

In the case of health and fitness, our expectations that we must always eat ‘healthy’ foods, always adhere perfectly to an exercise routine, always be on top of our game, work against us because they set us up for failure. 

A Snickers bar becomes a reason for not taking a walk, for eating more Snickers bars and the carton of ice cream in the freezer, too.  Or we think that if we can’t do it ‘right,’ we might as well not try to do it at all.  So a day that’s too busy for a walk leads to a week in which we fail to engage in any kind of physical activity for health.

Read more about the perfectionism trap.

Then resolve to go easy on yourself. 

The advice to take things one day at a time is all about living in the moment. After all, that’s the only time we’re actually alive – the past is gone, the future is not here yet.  It’s now that really counts.

6 responses to “What’s Wrong with Being A Perfectionist”

  1. Christy D. says:

    I saw this Oprah show and thought the same thing! I really liked your article and felt like you were talking about me. I don’t know why I’m so unforgiving with myself when it comes to staying on a diet. If I slip a little I tend to slide! Thanks for your blog, it is really filled with good information.

  2. Marsha says:

    Hi Christy,

    You’re not alone — that’s for sure. But one day at a time thinking can really help. ‘Cuz none of it is about being perfect — it’s about being in the moment and doing what you need at the moment to help yourself feel good and be well. Hang in there!

  3. Valerie says:

    How true it is about one day at a time. After my stay at Green Mountain almost two years ago, I have to say it has been those little cards on the dining tables that keep me going at times (there’s one on my frig, in my purse, on my bedroom mirror). I’ve had many health problems and much of it gets back to taking care of yourself. When my body starts turning on me I think about am I taking care of myself? Usually that answer is “No.” If not, then I move forward from this moment, not dwell on what I can’t change.

    The weeks I spent Green Mountain gave me a road to travel. I have not gained weight, I have plateaued, I have been on and off my exercise plan and food plan, but I always get back on and I never feel that I did anything wrong. It’s just a bump in the road.

    I also looked at my limitations differently and realized just because I had surgery does that mean I can’t do anything – usually not. I found there is always a stretch, or upper or lower body exercises I can do that won’t affect the surgery I had, but keep me going and feeling good.

    I started losing again and didn’t even realize it, except that I went back to living in the moment. Getting back into the routine, etc. The routines at Green Mountain became habits for me – portion sizes, choices, along with “what am I feeling,” and “what does my body need,” choices.

    The other wonderful result is to see the effect it has had on my teenage daughters. I’ve noticed how they choose foods, how they view their bodies, and how they catch me talking negatively about mine. Eith the media pressure on young girls, the fact that they have some semblance or base for a good body image makes me feel good.

    When the opportunity arises again, I will return. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life, and it’s stayed with me each and every day.

    Thank you. Valerie

  4. Marsha says:

    Valerie! So good to hear from you, and to hear how well you are doing both in taking care of yourself and your daughters. This approach isn’t always easy to adopt in our society, which has so many distracting and confusing messages that tell us to do something different. I hope you’re giving yourself lots of pats on the back for finding your way to the moment.

    all the best,

  5. S says:

    Hi all,

    I have been reading the body image related articles in the blog with some interest.
    I am a GM alum and know the perfectionism trap well.
    The “diet mentality” and struggle for perfection resonate with me, but why don’t we ever talk about where, when and why this stuff really starts? I did not grow up with dieters, or food worries, or negative comments about body shape, yet, I developed crippling body image disorder.
    In fact,I strugled with it for most of my life, since I was about four actually. I can remember being a little kid, trying to control my environment with a complex and inflexible set of rules and behaviours. When those rules were interfered with, I became more rigid and controling, usually with undesireable consequences. The most outstanding of which was total lack of joy in the moment. All of those moments eventually added up into years and created a history.
    I look back on a lifetime of unhappiness because I couldn’t appreciate the moment. That is devastating to think about. At a certain point, I must have been about 13, I realized that I could not dust enough, or change the dog’s water bowl enough, or alphabetize my mother’s spice rack enough or regulate other children’s play to my likeing…so I turned on myslef in other ways. The obsessive need to create order and perfection in chaos then resided in “total body perfectionism”.th seeds of the problem were there, and there had always been a kernal of self hate…I’m six and I am fat and ugly. My thighs are too big, I’m too pale, I don’t look good in a leotard, so I can not learn ballet or gymnastics, or ice-skating with my friends. I wasn’t actually fat. That’s the most mind boggling part. No one told me I was fat at home. Where did I learn that? At 6 years,
    I pulled my skin, drew circles and lines accross things I wanted to erase, and the more lines I drew….what would have been left was bones, no skin..that wasn’t pefect either.
    I felt empty,and the physical image I drew with those lines was probably representative of how empty I was emotionally, and how meek and powerless I felt in the world. I felt like I didn’t exist, perhaps I wanted physical proof of that feeling.That’s also pretty angry.

    So, feeling that there were not enough hours in the day to create a totally perfect environment (because the root of all problems is the dust, the dog’s water not being fresh, etc) I tried to fix the problems by controling what I looked like, and that meant not doing anything substantive (eating right, excercising, etc), but spending every wakeing hour writing down all the meals I skipped, passing out in school, not sleeping to drink diet coke and pace back and forth in a frenzied, flailing way from midnight to five am, trying to will my body to be different. This did wonders for my high school grades and my chances at a good college, or ANY college. I was also delightful company 🙁 …
    I actually used to go through the individual hairs on my headto make sure each one was “perfect”.
    This kind of behaviourdid not stop until recently. It crops up in my thoughts occationally andIthink I am being “organized”,but then I realize what it really is, and I can HALT immediately. I am able to do that because I know I am losing my present, the happiness I earned the hard way, to nonsense. I refuse to give the power to abstract and frankly wierd ideas about
    “perfection”,which really are about control.
    One of the most important things I learned from GM was that I will look like what I look like at any given moment. If I want to feel differently, or look different, I can plan for that and I can take action IN THE PRESENT, and I can be PATIENT for the results, because I FEEL GOOD while takeing the action and THINKING IT THROUGH.
    I can choose to be happy with my surroundings, work, friends, family, etc., at the moment, or I can use that time to concentrate on the state of the split end on one hair….either way, I CREATE my history, and I want it to be one I am proud of, and that means makeing it a happy one.
    This is not to say I don’t have my moments of “relapse”, I do, and they can be doozies, but I know that they are about feeling hopeless or out of control. When that happens, sometimes I resort to robotic behavior to get back in stride. I use “scare tactics” to stop myself from indulgingin behaviors that will eventually cause REAL problems for my long term health goals that are difficult or impossible to reverse, as opposed to the percieved problems. That might not be the BEST idea, but it helps me get back on track (with no guilt or self flagulation)
    and hey!, look how far I’ve come…the rest will come when it does!
    The diet mentality and Perfectionism
    is about control at a certain level, and at extremes we see the eating and body dysmorphic disorders. No one I know who is happy and well adjusted ever dieted, fat or thin. And needing that level of control is borne out of other things, I guess those things are different for different people. But it is NOT about the way we look, or about the food. It is about feeling utterly powerless.
    My examples date to early childhood, and continued to evolve and develop into adulthood. Sure,
    children have no power as it is, children who grow up in difficult situations probably are more vulnerable to those kinds of grabs for environmental control, but I am sure the same problems occured for other’s later in life.
    Now that I can live in the moment, I am able to plan in a helpful way to have the things that make me happy, I
    am able to enjoy relationships, food,
    weather…everything, because I am grateful and not cynical. Now that I FEEL how the other half lives, I don’t ever want to go back. Thank you Marsha, Alan,
    Mimi,LynnAnne, Gina, Sandie, Amy, and Robyn.

  6. Marsha says:

    Wow, S! You ask a question, then go on to answer it very thoroughly. I don’t think I can add anything. So happy that you have gotten to such a good place with all this. And I know that too many of us can relate to what you’ve gone through. So you show us it can be overcome — in the moment and in the long run.

    all the best,

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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