Nothing stops the achievement of a health goal faster than perfectionism.
I don’t mean the kind of perfectionism that involves endlessly tweaking something to make it just right. I mean the kind where if you don’t do something absolutely perfectly, you fail.
This scenario describes basically every diet I’ve ever been on. And I’m sure you can relate.
- The 5-day juice fast to lose 5 pounds that failed on day three when I ate a few bites of pizza.
- The prepackaged meal diet that failed when I was so hungry I ate two of them.
- The low-carb diet that failed when I caved in to a sugar craving and had a cookie.
What happens with this all-or-nothing mentality is that it puts you in a death spiral of failure that’s extremely difficult to escape. And it prevents you from making permanent changes that are only achieved through a process of trial and error ― of learning and growth.
Not only that, when you try to make massive changes in a short amount of time with no margin for error, you are not just setting yourself up for certain failure ― you’re preventing yourself from getting the results you’re so desperate for.
So why do we fall into this perfectionism trap ― and how do we get out of it?
Why Health Perfectionism Happens
The simple answer is that perfectionism happens because dieting fuels it. We try to change everything we’re doing, all at once, in a short amount of time, rather than make small, consecutive changes over a long period of time.
We set unrealistic goals to go with this short timeline ― intense, hard-to-sustain regimens that will make us lose weight as quickly as possible.
Giving yourself a short time frame to achieve a goal seems on the surface like a good thing. I mean, if you only have to do something for a week, how hard can it be?
But this approach backfires precisely because of the short time frame ― you’re committing to doing everything right for a week (or two weeks or 30 days) because you figure that if you can gut it out for a week and do it perfectly, you’ll be done. Goal achieved.
And because you don’t have a lot of time, you must double down on the intensity of your efforts. You commit to running 5 miles every day ― when you can barely make it around the block. Or you commit to an all-raw diet ― when you barely frequent the produce section. And, of course, you fail.
What’s Bad About It
The pressure we put on ourselves to do everything exactly right puts us in a resistant state that is the enemy of permanent change.
Permanent changes can only happen over time, with enough trial and error to learn what works and what doesn’t. And the confidence you build from that process is what motivates you to continue making incremental changes that keep adding up.
But feeling the pressure to do everything right, all the time, is exactly what causes you to slip up. And one misstep equals failure.
Then what happens? You have to start all over again.
Perfectionism doesn’t allow for mistakes or missed days. For a sick child or a messy house. For a work deadline or a bad day at the office. It doesn’t allow for life. And when life gets in the way, we blame ourselves for not having enough willpower.
Perfectionism thrives when you set super-short-term, all-or-nothing goals ― especially when those goals are set to lose weight quickly (which is, incidentally, the wrong goal). Plus, if you don’t change your habits, the weight will keep showing up, even if you manage to perfectly stick to whatever diet you’re on.
How to Fix It
Here are 4 tips on getting yourself out of the perfectionism trap so you can finally achieve your health goals (and, yes, lose weight):
1. Think long term. You have to get the big picture. The myopic, lose-weight-at-all-costs mindset just does not work. That’s how you find yourself in the short-term scenarios that push you into perfectionism.
Instead of thinking in terms of individual meals, think in terms of your overall diet (for lack of a better term). What do you eat most of the time? How can you improve on what you’re doing? Where will you be a year from now if you eat what you’re eating now?
Eating a few cookies after dinner isn’t derailing your life ― but if you are only considering that day’s calorie intake, you’ll probably end up eating the whole bag.
2. Think below the surface. Focusing on what you look like ― especially if you don’t like the way you look ― creates resistance, which pushes you to eat the comfort foods you’re trying to avoid.
Instead of thinking about how fat the chocolate you’re eating is going to make you, think about how it’s making you feel. Yes, you may feel good while you’re eating it, but how will you feel afterward? Will you feel tired and sluggish? Will you feel bloated and gross?
Thinking of food in terms of how it’s fueling your body makes it so much easier to choose healthier foods. And it also makes it easier to bounce back when you don’t, because it removes guilt from the equation. If you ate a whole bag of potato chips and recognize that it gave you a stomachache, it’s merely information you can use for next time ― rather than a measure of your worth as a person.
3. Amplify your inner cheerleader. We’ve established that health perfectionism ends in ultimate failure ― but it’s the feeling of failure that keeps you trapped.
Feeling like a failure is a result of your inner critic telling you that you are a failure. You have to get good at spotting your inner critic ― and then turn the volume up on your inner cheerleader.
Focus on things that you’re succeeding at. Do you keep your house running smoothly despite a chaotic schedule? Are you amazingly patient? (Good for you . . . I’m not!) Tell yourself often how successful you already are because it keeps you in the right frame of mind to keep succeeding in other ways ― namely, health.
I like to create mantras that I repeat throughout the day to remind myself of who I really am, rather than listen to my inner critic telling me what a failure I am.
4. Determine your “why.” Here’s where it all goes wrong. If your why is to lose weight, you’re way, way off track. You have to have a bigger, better why for your health goals.
We’d all love to have Jennifer Aniston’s bikini body. But measuring yourself against these kinds of standards will always make you feel like a failure because it’s a constant reminder of how far short you fall. This is what fuels the desperation to lose the weight, which is what pushes you to crash diet.
Think about how what you’re eating today is creating the future you ― and who you want that future you to be. What would make you feel truly alive? What would bring you joy? Set a big goal and intertwine your health goals with it. Use them to help you achieve something bigger than just losing weight.
Having a positive, goal-centered “why” means you’ll automatically start making healthier choices and develop the habits that go with that kind of life. And bring you your own bikini body.
Perfect Is Being Your Best Self
There’s actually no such thing as “perfect” ― it doesn’t exist.
And life definitely isn’t perfect. You’ll go through painful experiences that will push you back into emotional eating ― and that’s ok. In fact, expect it.
I went through a painful divorce a few years ago, and that’s exactly what happened to me. The good news was that I knew exactly what was happening ― and I gave myself a break instead of shaming myself for gaining a few pounds. I knew that once the pain started to subside and I felt better, my eating habits would get back to normal and that the weight would come off on its own. And that’s exactly what happened.
When you’re not trying to eat perfectly, do the perfect workouts, and (most of all) look perfect, it’s a lot easier to stick with doing what you need to do to naturally get the results you want.
I think that “perfect” is waking up every day determined to be your best self ― whatever that looks like today.
Maybe you do a 5-mile run and drink green juice. Maybe you need a Netflix binge. Maybe you need some chips and guacamole and a pitcher of margaritas with your girlfriends. Maybe you just need a break.
Working slowly and methodically toward your goals and getting it right most of the time is way better than going all or nothing and doing it perfectly none of the time ― and then quitting and having to start all over again.
Failure isn’t not getting it perfect, failure is giving up completely when you temporarily stray off course. You have to keep adjusting your approach and continuing down the road of progress.
You are an evolution on a lifetime journey ― and you get to choose what that journey looks like.
So you can keep failing to be perfect and waste your life getting nowhere. Or you can remember that you’re a perfect work in progress and keep moving forward.
It’s not about what you look like. It’s about who you want to be ― and what kind of life you want to live.