Do You Need To Be Perfect?

downloadIt dawned on me this week that one of the most wonderful gifts in life is the ability to not have to be perfect. I was reminded of this on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon last week. It was one of those picture perfect, almost fall days with a gentle breeze, sunny sky, no humidity and perfect temperature. Once a year I go with one of my best friends to a reservoir near where I live to go kayaking. My husband and I go several times during the warm months but my friend Barbara does not own a kayak and so for the past two years she and I decided to start a traditional and yearly kayak outing. She is retired and I get out of work early on Friday, so last Friday we went on our trip. We packed some sandwiches, the new Lay’s Reuben flavored potato chips and some wine and a camera, and off we went. Since it was a week day we almost had the reservoir to ourselves. We both had our hair disheveled, no make up to speak of, crappy water shoes, faded shorts and tee shirts, and no jewelry (well, except one of the necklaces that I refer to as my kayak necklace, which is made of natural jute and beads that my daughter made for me, and that I love (and do wear other places), but especially love for things I do in nature, like kayaking).IMG_6753

Anyway, we paddled along and stopped at a clearing on the shore to go walk along a path that became muddy, but was beautiful along a bog with reeds and lily pads and frogs. We also had found a spot where we paddled to float near a fallen tree (dubbed Broken Bark Bar) to have our late afternoon lunch/happy hour plastic cup of wine and proceeded to chat about everything. We both agreed we were at a point in our lives where we were so thankful that we were content and thankful to enjoy all the beautiful but simple things in life. We realized how relieved we felt to actually not care about our hair, our make up, or what we were wearing. Life is hard enough as it is. Problems come up with children and family and friends and life in general. It never ends! Imagine the extra strain of having to be perfect. Sadly, I clearly remember all the people I have met who struggle with this on a daily basis.

Just imagine:

Having to do a certain amount of exercise a day. Having to follow a certain diet, and think about every morsel that passes your lips (yes, there are people with dietary restrictions who have to avoid foods for medical reasons, but that is not who I am referring to). I am thinking about those people who forbid themselves things on a daily basis, and truly get emotionally upset when they do not follow their own self-imposed rules. People who invent some body image goal they feel is the only body they could possibly be happy in. It typically is not achievable without mental and physical repercussions, yet they carry on with the delusion that this perfect body will be the answer. Even when they reach their “goal weight”, it is never good enough. One thing I will never forget is the anorexic patient who told me “I finally realize, the only time I get to wear my goal jeans is when I lose so much weight that I have to be hospitalized”.

Can I share what I have learned from those I have seen reach these goals? These are the patients I have worked with over the years, and this is what I have seen: they change their goals once they reach them. It starts with one goal of losing a certain amount of weight, but then, that is not good enough. The weight goal lowers. They reach it and it still does not make them happy. The person who has the goal of doing a certain amount of exercise? The need to run a certain race, then another and another. Well, when they reach their goal, it is not enough. The goal increases. And they still are not happy. The end never comes.

I think we all have a bit of perfectionism in our lives, or at least unreasonable expectations. I know of moms who need to vacuum 4 times a day (and don’t let their children walk on the carpet….no footprints allowed). I know of women who pick their perfect outfits out of their perfectly organized closets the night before work (I definitely can’t relate). I personally struggle with going to bed if there are dishes in the sink. It won’t happen, I can admit. I just can’t wake up to that. Mornings are hard enough.

So, anyway, at the end of our kayak trip we got ashore, loaded our kayaks, life jackets and oars and drove back, back to reality. We put up our pictures on Facebook, and tucked another wonderful memory away in our hearts. I felt thankful for this friendship with such a wonderful and special woman, a mother who I am sure whose sons would consider the perfect mother, a friend who her many friends would consider a perfect friend, and to her significant other, well, I know he thinks she is perfect, too. With no make up, disheveled hair, faded shorts and tee shirt. I left feeling so very thankful for this beautiful day, but mostly for the realization that I now, finally, can embrace my imperfections and truly not care. Age has helped (one of the perks of getting older!) I only hope and pray that others might take a step to let go of just a little bit of perfectionism in their lives. Care about your health, but there is no need to eat 100% perfectly, or to exercise 100% every single day or to any perfect schedule, or to be any certain body that is not achievable without getting sick or obsessing about food. If you try and try and try…….and still can’t let go of it, consider getting some help. Realizing that you don’t want to have to be perfect anymore is a huge step forward.

For a long time now I have realized being imperfect is my definition of perfect. So consider a new definition of perfection for yourself!

Now if I could only get over leaving the dishes……

Who is ED?

eating-disorder-mirror-drawingI first was introduced to ED back in 1996. I had just finished graduate school and took a part time job at an eating disorder program. As a dietitian, my main interest was in health promotion and disease prevention. It made sense to me that it seemed smarter and easier to help people prevent disease if possible through promoting a healthy lifestyle. It is much harder to treat illnesses that may have been prevented. I specifically remember a middle aged man who I met during my very first job as a dietitian in a small hospital. He was admitted after having a heart attack. His lifestyle was not healthy at all (smoking, unhealthy diet, no physical activity). I remember thinking that he should not have been there.

I left the hospital after just one year and changed my focus to helping people be healthy. I worked for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and loved teaching young mothers about healthy eating. I also did some private practice and that is when I knew I needed more skills with counseling, and went back to graduate school (with a focus on counseling). It was while working on the college campus that I encountered students with “sub-clinical” eating disorders. In other words, they were restrained eaters who dieted yet had not developed an eating disorder yet. I did my research on “cognitive restraint” because I felt if we could stop people from dieting and focus on health instead, we could possibly prevent an eating disorder.

Although working with eating disorders was something I never planned to do, after doing my research, I ended up connecting with many eating disorder professionals and got my job at the eating disorder program. It was here where I was introduced to “ED”.

I got to observe group sessions and then got to run my own. Every patient is different however one of the common connections all of the patients related to was a “voice” that was constantly in their heads. Meet ED. I eventually imagined a little ugly creature sitting on my patient’s shoulders, feeding them thoughts and ideas, rules and insults, misinformation about themselves, food, their bodies, absolutely everything. This voice (ED) would follow them around all day long, into the night. It never stopped. It was a learning process for me as I learned about how this voice contributes to all of the distortions and beliefs individuals suffering from these eating disorders experience.

Here are some of the things my patients have told me ED says (warning, it will make you sad):

  • you can’t have that, it will make you fat
  • why did you eat that? you are worthless, you have no willpower!
  • don’t listen to her, she is lying, she wants you to gain weight
  • white flour is bad
  • meat is bad
  • you can’t eat fried food
  • you can’t have that, it has sugar in it
  • you need to burn that up, when are you going to do it? figure it out, you ate it, now you need to get rid of it
  • you look fine, they are just jealous because you lost weight. You need to lose more. Don’t listen to them
  • you are disgusting
  • you didn’t do enough. You need to do more, more laps, more sit-ups, more more more.

Get the picture? Depending on where someone is in the recovery process, talking about this voice does come up. It is a slow process, but helping individuals fight this voice is critical. Exposing ED for the liar that he is takes a lot of work and energy. Of course, every patient needs therapy to work through their specific issues that led to the eating disorder in the first place. As a dietitian, I focus on teaching the truth about foods, eating, weight, etc. Sometimes, during a visit with a patient who is fighting hard and finally aware of what a “healthy” voice is, ED still weasels his way back in. I admit to falling into the trap of arguing with ED, and then it hits me, and I stop. I have often said to patients “wait a minute, I am not going to engage ED, can I talk to YOU?!” Once I had a patient get up and dramatically rip ED from her shoulder and throw him in the waste basket! She said “I have lots of family celebrations this weekend and I want to enjoy them. ED is not invited!” I will never forget that strong visual.

Another thing people don’t often realize is that individuals with eating disorders are just that. Individuals who unfortunately struggle with this disease. They are not an “anorexic” or a “bulimic”. They are people. I have met the most extraordinary people who have had ED on their shoulders and have had to fight him daily. I have met lawyers, dancers, chefs, professors, soccer players, football players, mothers, aunts, fathers, sons, daughters. I have enjoyed getting to know these individuals and especially as ED fades away and they can be their very interesting, fun, loving, energetic and happy selves again. That to me has been rewarding beyond explanation.

And what about you? Unfortunately, I hear people mumbling out loud about food, their bodies, what they ate, exercise, etc. in ways that are not always healthy, and sound way too much like ED. He is a villain that somehow has become culturally acceptable (which makes it real hard for those struggling). Remember, prevention is a lot easier than recovery. When you hear a berating, negative voice in your head about anything to do with eating or your body, just try to be aware. Stop ED in his tracks. Say “you are full of it!” If you can’t stop that voice, you may want to consider getting some help. Maybe someday, our culture will normalize it’s view of eating and body size and he will fade away. Until then, I hope you continue to fight the craziness in your own way.