When perfectionism goes wrong


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How many people can relate to this?  From my experience, a lot, and I bet you this picture was taken on a Sunday, because “my diet starts Monday,” right?  Sunday becomes time to eat all the “fun foods” so there’s nothing left to tempt you tomorrow, and with your head hung low you prep the kale and plain tilapia.  No wonder everyone hates Monday!  

What triggers this?  Many of us have high expectations and embrace a perfectionist mentality when it comes to our work, relationships, parenting or fitness, and nutrition.  With all the widely available information we have at our fingertips, we’re consistently presented with 30-day nutrition challenges or 7-day cleanses to achieve guaranteed weight loss that requires excessively restrictive food choices.  

So what do you do?  You go to the grocery store and stock up on lemons, maple syrup and cayenne pepper hoping this will finally be the magic bullet to help you lose those last 20 pounds you’ve put on after college and can’t seem to shake.  You like that you don’t have to think about what to eat, just eat these foods and you’ll lose weight! You start first thing on Monday morning, disappointed with every meal and fighting hunger half the day.  

You wake up early to get an intense workout in while the kids are sleeping and after drop-off you rush to work where you kick ass on the latest project and far exceed the timeline and expectations set before you.  “Incredible work!” your client tells you, and you mumble something about how you got lucky in your research, because giving yourself credit is hard. You bite your tongue yet again when your co-worker, Steve, goes off on one of his uninformed political rants.  

When you come home, you notice your partner washing the dishes, except he’s missed several spots on each of them, so you sigh and push him aside so that you can re-wash them. You meticulously prep your coordinated outfit, plan and pack your meal for the next day and get the kids’ lunches ready.  Sure they could make their own, but then their lunchboxes would be sticky and covered with jelly so it’s not worth it, you just do it yourself.  After tucking them in and making up a creative bedtime story, you fall exhausted into bed so that you can catch up on the news and start it all over again in the morning.  You repeat this Monday through Friday until something cracks on Friday night.  

You’re exhausted and ruminating about a new project you took on which will be all consuming and outside your wheelhouse, but you did so well on your last one your boss HAD to give it to you.  It feels uncomfortable and overwhelming to be so unsure of where to start and how you’re going to approach it.  But surely you have to be the one to do it, because Dave sure as hell isn’t going to be anywhere near as thorough and thoughtful as you.

The emotions and pressures start to build until you can’t suppress them any longer.  Screw it, you go to the kitchen to feel better.  You were buttoned up and “good” all week.  You need to let your hair down and release some steam.  You eat every tasty food you’d been denying yourself all week.  The Greek yogurt for lunch and salad for dinner just wasn't cutting it.  These foods taste so much better! But then the guilt starts to creep in.  Surrounded by wrappers and empty bowls, you start to put away the evidence and half-heartedly tell yourself you’ll be “good” again tomorrow, except when you wake up you see the crumbs on the counter from the night before, and without even realizing it, you reach for the Pop Tarts and muffins.  You just can’t face another breakfast of spicy maple syrup lemon water.  Saturday’s breakfast choices bleed into your decisions for the rest of the day and all of Sunday.  Every meal starts to look like one of The Rock’s cheat days*.  

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You notice you’re eating, even though you feel stuffed, when you start to think of Monday looming ahead like a dementor over Hogwarts.  

This is where the perfectionist mentality fails us.  With this all or nothing approach, you’re either “perfect” or not even trying.  You swing so far in the other direction that you feel like you have to restrict again to compensate for such large indulgences over the weekend.  When you do, it just starts the cycle all over again.  

Too many of us struggle with our eating patterns because of perfectionism.  I know I certainly have.  It’s taken me several years to pull myself out of that mentality not just with eating but in many aspects of my life, and focus on a more moderate approach that’s sustainable every day of the week, not just on Monday.  That’s exactly why my motto is “progress, not perfection.”  

When we don’t give ourselves credit, we miss out on opportunities to celebrate the small wins; to use them to gain positive momentum towards sustainable changes.  

Instead of continually raising the bar and feeling paralyzed in fear when we look up at it, let’s lower it way down so that we’re not afraid to get started.  Because when we’re so overwhelmed with all this conflicting diet advice, why even bother caring about what you eat at all?  Instead, let’s focus on changing one small thing at a time and getting good at the basics consistently.  

When we see the situation as pizza, fries, a beer and a warm brownie sundae versus raw broccoli and dried chicken breast, it’s doing us a disservice by neglecting to leave space for the much more enjoyable middle ground that doesn’t leave us with shame, guilt, bloating or deprivation.  

I often remind my clients (and myself) not to let perfect be the enemy of good, because a perfect exercise program or nutrition plan implemented a few weeks out of the year won’t be nearly as successful as the “good enough” exercise or nutrition plan carried out repeatedly all year.  Let’s focus on progress, not perfection.    

Get ready for some personal examples of how I've shed my perfectionist ways next post. If you have your own examples, I'd love to hear them!

*Yes, I will find anyway I can to tie The Rock into my blog posts.  But really, can you blame me?