Perfectionism and The Critic in Recovery
I know you feel it,the pressure to do it all PERFECTLY. You know it’s impossible, yet still you are seduced. You aren’t quite sure what makes you aim for perfection, but what you are sure of is that nagging voice inside your head telling you that you aren’t doing it right. The critic comments on just about everything you do and don’t do. But why? Because there is some narrative out there telling us that we can live life without creating any ripples. That if we just try hard enough we will self-actualize without ever confronting another person, speaking up for ourselves, or even valuing our own life. The critic thinks it is protecting us from harm, but actually harm is all it creates.
When recovering from an eating disorder your critic will often insert itself in the process. There are several reasons recovery elicits the inner critic? For one, it’s probably new to you and anything new can feel like you are doing it wrong. Additionally, you have to focus on yourself during recovery and that for many is terrifying and often framed as selfish. Furthermore, recovery challenges old stories that you have retold yourself many times. Recovery requires growth and growing can have pains!
The critic may put pressure on you to pretend you are fine or to believe that you aren’t making any progress. The critic regularly takes away from your gains and strips you bare. It tells you that if recovery were actually working you wouldn’t feel this way. That since you aren’t 100% recovered you are disappointing others and may as well quit. The critic can sound pretty convincing.
Recovery can be stressful, and excessive amounts of stress clouds judgement and rational thinking,allowing that critic to sound even louder when it tells you that you aren’t doing it well enough.
So how can we cope with the critic?
- Learn about your critic by listening to it with curiosity instead of reacting to it. Does it sound like someone you know or have known? Does it target certain choices more than others? Does it show up more when you are tired, angry or stressed? The more you know about your critic the better equipped you will be to inoculate yourself from it with helpful mantras like: “I’m not failing, I’m just tired today and I am allowed to be tired!” or “I know my mom would do it this way but I am me and I can do things the way I want.”
- Keep your long-term goals in mind. Do you want to recover so you can go to school? Give back to your community? Remind yourself regularly why you are doing the work you are doing.
- Be true to yourself. Maybe you haven’t really spent time getting to know who you are. Many of us have never been encouraged or had the opportunity to know ourselves, interests, and skills. And now, for the first time, we are having to make significant decisions without understanding what is important to us. Many of us have been raised to conform to our parent’s visions of ourselves and through recovery are faced with personal choices about which we worry what others will think. By being true to yourself you have no one to disappoint.
- Be ok with being vulnerable or scared. These don’t make you weak- they make you human. And when you feel these feelings, reach out to someone. Allow yourself to have a support system. No one is harder on yourself than you are. As they say, “The worst bullies are in your head.”A good friend can reassure you and help problem solve in productive ways because they aren’t in the thick of it and their critic isn’t imposing feelings of inadequacy upon them.
Understand that perfect doesn’t exist. The pursuit of perfection is one that inevitably leads to disappointment because perfect is a concept rather than a reality. Instead of aiming for perfection, aim for progress. Progress is attainable, progress is real and progress is whatever you decide it to be. That is a concept in recovery that gives you something important to build upon.
Written by Jasmine Dunckel, MFT – Jasmine is Clinical Director at Cielo House Moss Beach. She understands that what matters in recovery is progress, ands works with clients to ensure they are finding and appreciating their progress in recovery.