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Perfectionism & Eating Disorders


By Columnist Eleni Psillakis – Eating Disorder Educator: 

Photo Credit – Eleni Psillakis, 2017, Perfectionism –

Perfectionism in psychology is defined as a personality trait in which a person strives for ‘flawlessness’. This striving is accompanied by setting high-performance standards. Plus, striving occurs when you’re being self-critical and have concern for what other’s perceptions of you are.

The Sides of Perfectionism

The positive aspect of this personality trait is that it can motivate a person to strive for goals. However, the downside is that when combined with many other factors these influence your thoughts and behaviours. Then the striving for unattainable goals creates a complex mess of anxiety, depression, shame and guilt. Furthermore, research shows that perfectionism may be both a risk factor and a maintenance factor for eating disorders. This view links to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Ironically, those that suffer from eating disorders often disregard all of their other life goals and ambitions. Instead, the focus of their life becomes food and compensatory behaviours.

Also, research shows that those who previously suffered anorexia and restored body weight still had higher scores on perfectionism than control groups. These findings indicate that this trait is not only related to attaining an ‘ideal’ body size or shape. Similarly, the level of perfectionism had little significance on impacting recovery from anorexia or bulimia.

The Facets of Perfectionism

There are many facets to perfectionism. These include:

  • Personal Standards
  • Criticism from parents
  • Concern over Mistakes
  • Expectations from others
  • Perceived perfection in society

Not ‘Good Enough’

When fear drives us to think we’re not ‘good enough’, perfectionism then has devastating consequences for individuals.  Mental, social and physical health becomes compromised as our self-worth is affected. As such, the many rigid rules that accompany eating disorder behaviours set a framework for the sufferer. They then live by these with their sense of worth based around adhering to these. Thus, the rules become their personal standard. For me, adhering to these rules meant that I felt I was worthy to warrant my parent’s affections, Before this, for many years, I felt that I was not ‘good enough’. Therefore, I did not deserve acknowledgement – listening to or love. But, this notion was a false belief that I had driven into my behaviour. It also formed a foundation of people-pleasing and seeking approval from others.

I became self-critical if I broke the rules that I created regarding restricted eating and excessive exercise. If I ‘slipped up’ then I was a failure. Shame and guilt strengthen these behaviours. Consequently, the binge-purge cycle is driven by guilt and shame. The eating disorder then becomes a means of control for the emotions. So, I felt a failure because I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ daughter. For me, It did not begin with anything to do with body weight. Yet, it became a fear of gaining weight that the fear of not being good enough for my parents maintained. This belief influenced behaviours for most of my life.

Media and Perceived Societal Expectations

The complexities of eating disorders are many as is their development. There were no social media posts when I suffered anorexia. There are now over 45 million posts under the #Fitspo or fitness inspiration.

For the vulnerable, and those seeking perfection these posts scream many ‘should’s and ‘shouldn’ts’. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that then. Exercise like this and at this time. The list goes on all to be a ‘better version of yourself’. The trouble is that for a person that is forever striving to achieve that state of perfection, it does not come. These images provide a consistent platform for comparison with the view a sufferer has of themselves. The number on the scale either has to plummet to a new low, or the cycle of binge and purge continues. Alternatively, people give up looking after themselves in a balanced and healthy manner.

Perfection Does Not Exist

The Dove Evolution clip shows the expectations and ideals of perfection. These ideals are not even real. Many images of bodies on social media are also often sexualised. When self-worth (self-image) strongly connects to what you feel about your body (body image), this also affects the way we portray ourselves sexually. Promiscuity or abstinence could result, either way changing our relationships. Many images on pro ana sites, where people encourage anorexia behaviour, are sexualized.

Is this a reflection or an attempt to attain societal ideals of ‘perfection’ and beauty? Or is it a cry out for the real need for love and thinking that sex will provide this? The trouble is this can result in more disappointment as shame and a sense of failure strengthen unhealthy behaviours. This quote, taken from a pro-ana site, shows how bad feeling inadequate is, along with self-hating. Anonymous: “I believe that I am the vilest, worthless and useless person to have ever existed on this planet. I am totally unworthy of anyone’s time and attention. Also, I believe in the oughts, musts and shoulds, as unbreakable laws to determine my daily behaviour. Plus, I believe in perfection and strive to attain it.”

What These Thoughts Mean

These thoughts are not vanity. Instead, these are the cry of someone that has lost sight of how to exist any other way. Plus, it is a prison as a means of control of feelings of unworthiness. We copy and paste behaviours trying to attain a better version of ourselves. Often though, these cover up our ‘flaws and mistakes’, and we lose sight of who we are in the process. This concept is not an example of health. Health starts with loving who you are. If what we think of ourselves is not positive, then our physical, emotional, mental and social health suffers.

So, what is perfection and what is imperfection? According to whose opinion? Maybe it will come when we eliminate self-criticism or stop criticising others in an attempt to feel better about ourselves. No comparison, no shame, no blame. Just accept, learn and be.

Eating Disorder Help

If you or anyone you know is needing help for an eating disorder you can contact:

Alternatively, you can reach out to Eleni at info@brazengrowth.com.au

Reference for this article:

Bardone-Cone, Anna M., et al. “Perfectionism and eating disorders: Current status and future directions.” Clinical Psychology Review 27.3 (2007): 384-405.

Workshops & Events

Identifying & Managing Eating Disorders in the Fitness Industry

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Mental Health First Aid Australia

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As an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Eleni recommends gaining the qualification yourself. Attain a certificate in Mental Health First Aid, by registering below. This qualification enables you to support people in a time of mental illness and crisis until an appropriate professional arrives.

Register here for course held at Dee Why Surf Club




About Our Eating Disorder News and Review Columnist – Eleni Psillakis


Combining over 27-years experience in the fitness industry, education and a lived experience, Eleni Psillakis is raising awareness of eating disorders as serious mental illnesses. In her time as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, secondary and tertiary educator, Eleni wasn’t aware of the fine-line that crossed from healthy to unhealthy diet and exercise habits.

How Eleni Used Resistance Training

Using resistance training to gain weight to her 39kg frame at age 19, Eleni physically recovered and went on to compete in women’s bodybuilding. However the underlying emotional issues and thought patterns resurfaced 25-years later when her marriage broke down and a diagnosis of clinical depression resulted. Antidepressants and 8-years of psychological counselling, assisted with unlearning of negative thought processes that Eleni had of herself for most of her life. These were nothing to do with body image, but self-worth.

Resistance training again helped the process of stopping her thoughts racing during this time of depression and she stepped back onto the competition stage gaining a top 3 place in her division for each of the 5 competitions since. It was the psychological help that has made the difference this time around.

An Insight to Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders for Fitness Professionals”, a seminar that Eleni has written, has been approved by Fitness Australia for continuing education.

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Disclaimer: The information published in this column are based on the author’s own professional and personal knowledge, and opinion. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any manner. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition and consult a qualified medical professional before beginning any nutritional program or exercise program. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on InShape News.

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