Perfectionists walk an incredibly narrow road. There can be no deviation from the prescribed path, no sidetracks, and certainly no missteps. There can be no slowing or stopping for others, who are expected to keep up and keep straight, regardless. Perfectionists understand the road is going to be difficult and take great pride in navigating it successfully. They must be constantly on guard for any obstacle in the path, any breath of wind that might knock them off their course. Vigilance and an ongoing state of alertness are key.
With perfectionism, there is no standing down, no acceptable periods of relaxation. Perfectionism is, therefore, both exhausting and unattainable. Addiction can creep in and promise a form of momentary relief from the unrelenting anxiety of trying to be perfect. Addiction can also promise to numb those times when the reality of the unattainable becomes overwhelmingly hard to bear. Addiction promises you can spend a few hours looking away from the shame, blame, and guilt nipping at your heels unless you are perfect. Addiction promises to shield you temporarily from the fear that you are, sadly and tragically, like everyone else—flawed, imperfect, unworthy.
Angela felt she didn’t deserve to be happy. After more probing, I discovered she never had. Any success she’d experienced had been a sort of “cheat,” she said. If people really knew who she was or how much work she’d put into it or any number of factors, they would know she didn’t deserve success and it would be taken away. How could anything she did be worthy when she wasn’t worthy herself?
Angela grew up in a household where nothing she did was right. When she brought home good grades, it was assumed the teacher hadn’t applied the proper standards or she’d gotten away with something. Good things were suspect, but bad things were expected because of who she was. She knew who she was—the one who would “never amount to anything.” She was the one who would “never be like [her] sister.” The one who couldn’t “do anything right to save [her] life,” even though she always tried.
Angela was deeply ashamed of her addiction; part of her was also incredibly angry. She was angry because being trapped in the addiction proved she was weak and everything that had been said about her was true. All her life, Angela kept trying to “make up” for the mistakes she’d made, and the addiction kept putting her further and further behind. She’d never catch up, and with the weight of the addiction added in, catching up seemed to take more energy than she had. She’d been foolish to think she could ever do or be anything other than a failure. “What good is today,” she’d asked, “if I can’t have tomorrow?”
Angela’s addiction subverted the positive roles of shame, blame, and guilt and used them to convince her she wasn’t worth a positive tomorrow. She was especially susceptible to this tactic, since shame, blame, and guilt had always been used as weapons against her while she was growing up. Addiction strips away self-esteem. This can be particularly damaging when you started out with little or none in the first place, as Angela did.
For years, I’ve been speaking out against the tremendous damage done, especially to children, through the tactics of emotional abuse. My book Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse has been a pivotal resource in this effort for more than twenty years.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.
People who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating often experience companion emotions. Three of the most common companion emotions to eating disorders include fear, guilt, and shame. Addressing these emotions is a crucial part of truly recovering from an eating disorder.
If you grew up in a rigid, perfectionistic family, you may have developed an intense fear of failure and rejection. If someone you desperately wanted approval from conditioned that approval on unrealistic goals of perfect behavior, you got the message that no matter how hard you try, you were never good enough. If that person conditioned their approval on physical appearance, you got the message that being thin was the surest way to measure up.
Your parents or other family members may still focus their attention on outward appearances. They may not be comfortable, even today, talking about your feelings and emotions. They may express their approval only of your outward signs of success: your physical appearance, a prestigious job, exemplary school performance, a high salary, or material possessions. Success for them is determined by how you are “doing,” as opposed to how you are feeling. You need to recognize the possibility that your eating disorder or disordered eating patterns have come about as a response to your need for this conditioned approval. If you were unable to gain acceptance in other areas of your life, you may have turned to your physical appearance as an avenue of acceptance. Your fear of rejection has metastasized into fear of being fat.
Children’s frames of reference for sorting out the jumble of adult actions and motivations are their own experiences. So there is a tendency for children to blame themselves for family difficulties. A child whose parents are divorcing will ask himself what he did wrong. A child whose mother is angry all the time will wonder how she can make her mother happy. Children understand when something they have done wrong produces pain in others. An immature leap in logic can produce the false impression that when they experience pain themselves, they must be the cause of it. And those feelings lead to tremendous guilt.
Eating disorders and a dysfunctional relationship with food can often be caused by past guilt manifested into control and self-harm. In order to control the guilt, an anorexic will self restrict food and liquids. A bulimic will binge to comfort the fear and purge out the guilt. An over-eater will binge to bring comfort as a way to appease the guilt. People who insist upon intentional unhealthy eating may have already written themselves off because of guilt and lack of motivation to make better choices.
A dysfunctional relationship with food thrives in an atmosphere of shame. Without significant weakening in the self-esteem and self-worth of a person, these destructive behaviors could not stand. In the progression of the eating disorder and disordered eating, shame over her inability to control her own behaviors is like a suffocating blanket. The person who has learned to love and forgive herself would throw off that blanket. But to the person who has lived in an atmosphere of shame, that blanket is a familiar, acceptable place to hide.
The anorexic feels shame at never achieving impossible perfection. The bulimic and the overeater feel shame at the out-of-control binging. In addition, the bulimic who purges through vomiting or laxatives will feel shame at the very way the food is expelled from the body. The overeater feels ashamed at simply being fat. The disordered eater feels ashamed at being unable to control those urges. Together, they constantly attack self-esteem and promote self-doubt—the perfect breeding ground for shame.
If you or someone you love is struggling with and eating disorder and the co-occurring emotions of fear, guilt or shame, The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. Call 1-888-771-5166 or fill out our contact form and someone from The Center • A Place of HOPE will be in touch with you soon.
Excerpts of this blog were taken from Dr. Gregory Jantz’s book Hope Help & Healing for Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach to Treatment of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Disordered Eating.