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Using self-compassion and radical acceptance to overcome perfectionism in eating disorder recovery

Perfectionism is a trait many people can have and is associated with eating disorders. And often, individuals maintain elevated perfectionist traits well into recovery, which increases their risk of relapse to disordered eating behaviors. However, learning self-compassion and radical acceptance can help those in recovery to overcome their perfectionism and take a more mindful and loving approach to life.

Last updated on 
March 15, 2023
Using self-compassion and radical acceptance to overcome perfectionism in eating disorder recovery
In this article

The link between perfectionism and eating disorders

Research indicates that there is a strong connection between perfectionism and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN) and that perfectionism is a risk and maintenance factor for various eating disorder symptoms and behaviors. (1

A risk factor increases a person’s likelihood of developing a condition like an eating disorder whereas a maintenance factor perpetuates an already existing eating disorder. Research also has shown that people who have recovered from an eating disorder tend to have high levels of perfectionism, which could be a risk factor for relapse. (1)

Given the role of perfectionism in maintaining an eating disorder as well as its influence on relapse, knowing how to manage perfectionist traits can help people in recovery at every stage, from early initiation in treatment to long-term recovery.

Signs of perfectionism

People with perfectionist traits may attempt to control situations, work excessively hard, fixate on perceived imperfections or mistakes, and are extremely self-critical. Other signs of perfectionism include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of failure
  • Judging yourself and others
  • Failing to live in the present
  • Negative self talk
  • Not feeling loved or appreciated
  • Not feeling satisfied even when you do something well
  • Having unrealistic standards for yourself
  • Focusing solely on the outcome or result
  • Having an intense fear of failure
  • Procrastinating projects or tasks

Perfectionism as a roadblock to eating disorder recovery

People with high perfectionist traits put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves to achieve often unattainable goals. With eating disorders, this may be connected to weight, size, shape, a rigid pattern of eating, or a strict and compulsive exercise routine. They also tend to measure their self-worth by impossibly high standards of achievement, viewing every mistake as a sign that they are a failure.

When considering this feature in the context of eating disorders, if someone eats something they believe they shouldn’t have eaten, this may lead to feelings of shame and guilt, both of which only perpetuate eating disorder symptoms. 

Moreover, perfectionism can lead to other mental health symptoms and complications, such as psychological distress, problems sleeping, and anxiety, all of which could trigger an eating disorder or contribute to relapse. (2)

Consequently, it’s important to screen for and manage perfectionist traits in those entering eating disorder treatment because of its strong association with various eating disorder (ED) symptoms and behaviors.

What are self-compassion and radical acceptance?

Self-compassion and radical acceptance challenge perfectionism, and together, they can help you overcome your extremely high standards—for behavior and achievement.

Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the kindness, generosity, and grace that you might grant someone you love. When you have compassion for yourself, you recognize and understand your pain and struggles, making space for them without judgment or criticism. Self-compassion involves caring for yourself when you make a mistake or are going through a difficult time. This may look different for everyone, depending on what self-care methods work best for you, but what matters is your understanding attitude toward yourself and your pain.

Practicing radical acceptance means accepting your reality and situation, including distressing experiences or feelings. By accepting them, you can care for them without judgment instead of criticizing yourself for a mistake, challenge, or feeling. As an element of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), it goes hand-in-hand with self-compassion. How radical acceptance benefits when it comes to eating disorders is by helping an individual to accept their body as well as the feelings they experience related to eating, body image, and movement. It can also empower individuals to accept:

  • Stressors and triggers
  • Anxiety, shame, and guilt
  • Challenges related to recovery
  • Relapses to disordered eating behaviors

​​How to practice self-compassion and radical acceptance

A major component of radical acceptance is acknowledging that eating disorder recovery is not linear—rather, it may be full of ups and downs, and that’s okay. In understanding and accepting the unpredictable nature of recovery, you can let go of the perfectionist desire to recover “flawlessly.”

Another facet of radical acceptance is that of mindfulness—people who practice radical acceptance live in the now as opposed to always worrying about the future or viewing happiness as a goal to obtain. Radical acceptance involves letting go of the idea that you will be happy once you achieve certain goals. This process can allow you to find contentment in the present, even in stressful or challenging times, and help you manage emotional reactions.

Here is how to practice radical acceptance and self-compassion:

  • Accept that slip-ups or relapses may occur and treat them with forgiveness and kindness, but work to get extra support when you need it.
  • Forgive yourself for your past behaviors so you can let go of your regret and move forward.
  • Practice mindfulness, by focusing on your feelings, acknowledging them, and allowing them to exist without judging them, as well as paying attention to your breath in moments of distress.
  • Let go of things you can’t control and concentrate on things you can control, such as how you react to slip-ups or deal with distressing feelings or events.
  • Instead of taking a goal-oriented approach to life, try to focus on the joy of the present moment, eating intuitively and mindfully, engaging in joyful movement, and expressing gratitude.
  • Process complicated experiences or intense emotions (especially negative emotions) by creating a journaling practice.
  • Create a list of affirmations and coping statements for eating disorder recovery that you can turn to each day.
  • Consider the idea that love can be an action as well as a feeling, and that choosing loving behavior involves making the decision to care for yourself, even if your feelings of self love are not yet present.

At its core, practicing radical acceptance is non-punishing, nonjudgmental, and loving. It can help you let go of self-hatred and unhelpful emotions and allow you to focus on emotional healing and healing fear.

If it doesn’t come naturally to you at first, that’s okay—it can take a while to adjust to a new mindset as well as to unlearn all the harmful ways we treat ourselves. But once you begin to practice radical acceptance and self compassion, you are better equipped to not only cope with unwanted, negative, and intense emotions but also to move forward with generosity and kindness for yourself.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Bardone-Cone, A. M., Sturm, K., Lawson, M. A., Robinson, D. P., & Smith, R. (2010). Perfectionism across stages of recovery from eating disorders. The International journal of eating disorders, 43(2), 139–148.
  2. Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2016). The relationship between perfectionism and psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(10), 1301–1326.

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