Ditching Perfectionism

Over the past few months I have become an avid podcast listener. My favourite ones currently span the topics of science, design, general inquisitiveness and – inevitably – eating disorders. I’ve recently learned some very important things that have helped me stay on track during the anxious build-up to the huge life change that is currently happening (moving in with my partner and changing jobs…in the same week!). Importantly, these lessons are not only pertinent for people with eating disorders; I think many people could benefit from them, hence my drive to share.

Something that is often discussed in the eating disorder community, which previously didn’t seem to resonate with me particularly strongly, was the seemingly constant messages to stop focusing on your aesthetic appearance; that inner beauty was what mattered; that your weight did not determine your worth. I didn’t really take any notice of these messages because surely I knew all of that? I have never been particularly focused on appearance, I have no problem leaving the house without make-up, and I certainly don’t dress like a fashion model. Therefore these messages must only be useful for those eating disorder sufferers who really care about how they look, and for those who have body dysmorphia (a condition that I don’t think I’ve ever had).

However through my musings I have realised, with some degree of shame, that I do actually care a lot about what other people think of my appearance. I was listening to a podcast that asked a few quick-fire questions for the listener to answer on the spot, without contemplating for very long. These questions included ‘what part of your body would you change if you could?’ and ‘what core value do you want others to see in you?’ Very simple, and things that I would have assumed I could predict my answers to. But, in the context of answering them very quickly, my answers really shocked me. What I learned from the above questions were that i) I am very conscious of my hair; and ii) I most want others to think of me as being compassionate. The first one had nothing to do with body shape or size, which one (including me) may have expected from an anorexic; and as for the second one, I would have thought that I’d have answered something along the lines of ‘intelligent’, ‘strong’ or ‘composed’.

The first one, regarding hair, may seem less interesting. But it’ actually very insightful to me, as it is connected to this longstanding issue I’ve had with feeling that I lack an ‘identity’. Daft as it sounds, I used to think of my hair as the defining part of my appearance; it was long and curly, and when I think about it, I used to put a hell of a lot of effort into maintaining it. I might have been totally comfortable leaving the house without make-up; but very rarely was I happy about my hair being anything but just-so. However, during the wort years of anorexia my hair lost its oomph, the curls disappeared, and I ended up chopping it all off because it looked so lank and lame. So, in an embarrassingly pathetic way, I feel like I lost the only part of my body that I was ever proud of – and this has brought me down more than I realised.

So after realising the importance of my hair in my identity, I then started to explore why identity is so significant to me and where the obsession came from. I realised that during my life I have never felt like I was doing anything ‘properly’, for example: I sort of dressed a bit alternatively as a teen but didn’t have a respected label e.g. ‘Goth’; in fact no-one respected me for anything in particular, as I fitted into neither the ‘pretty and popular’ nor ‘geeky and edgy’ camps; and I did reasonably well at education but wasn’t a straight-A or first class achiever; and I did a good-ish job at my PhD but didn’t make a momentous scientific discovery and publish a ground-breaking paper. This all leads neatly into another topic that I used to hear banded around the eating disorder world and feel that it didn’t apply to me: perfectionism. I never thought I was a perfectionist; I’m not the type to agonise over straight lines and tidiness (I can hear family members guffaw-ing right now…) and I’m not a ‘finisher’ – my tendency is to start things with good intentions and then get bored/distracted part way through and rush to complete them, cutting corners if needs be. However, this is very much related to the external world; but, as I described earlier, when it comes to myself I guess I have been striving to be a version of ‘perfect’. Be that a perfect academic or some sort of perfect style icon. Now I’ve identified where my tendencies towards perfectionism lie, I find that I can gain much more benefit from all of the advice and insight on perfectionism that is shared amongst the eating disorder support community.

The second of those quick-fire questions that stuck with me was the one that asked what personal quality I want the world to recognise in me, and I answered ‘compassion’. When I said this I thought instantly of my late Nan – her image popped up in my head and I smiled as I remembered how much everyone loved her because of her sheer kindness towards others. She really made you feel better; even as a troubled teen, with so much angst about things that are now so insignificant, I used to call her, ask if she was free for a trip on the bus, and of course she always had time for me. Just a bit of time in her company, helping her choose an outfit in her favourite clothes shop or going to buy my Grandad’s ‘yellow fish’ (smoked haddock), would make everything seem OK again. And this is the kind of effect I want to have on the people that I love; I want to be able to make them feel good. This will make knowing me a useful and beneficial thing; and will give me a purpose in life that is on a far higher level than being the best scientist, or the smartest person in the room, or the woman with the most admirable career. Nothing is more important than my loved ones, so nothing is more important than repaying their care and love.

And now for a bit of discussion around my new favourite word; authenticity. If I were to carve a word on a stone (which is a popular therapeutic technique I’ve heard used for all sorts of soul-searching endeavours), it would be authenticity. I heard it mentioned by a podcaster who had post-its of inspiring words stuck around her house, and it absolutely stuck with me (not the post-it thing; I prefer a more subtle approach). I even stopped listening to the podcast as I had a mini affirmation, working out why this word made so much sense to me. And this is because, deep down, I actually think I’m an OK person. I’m clear of my values, and know that I have a good, caring heart and want to generally have a positive impact on the world. In fact I often find myself wishing I could just ‘be myself’ more; I always seem to leave conversations and events feeling like I tried to put on a mask or an act, and that it went wrong, and I came across as something very unlike my true self and not at all as I intended.

Thus from now on, I vow to be Rhiannon in everything I do. I’m fairly confident that if I trust myself to make decisions, instead of trying to find a rule book on how I should live, I will always do the right thing. This is because there is simply no other way; if I try and be someone else, I will fail. That quote about being ‘the best version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else’, is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Along with ‘comparison is the thief of authenticity’, which is also cool. And, for my personal battle with anorexia, the idea of being true to my feelings and needs will help in recovery; when faced with a food choice or opportunity to exercise versus rest, I shall stop to think about what I genuinely want, not what the disorder wants.

So, to round up, the three most significant qualities I’ve recently gained a lot of insight into are:

  1. Perfectionism – This is something to fight against, and this will become easier now that I understand where mine lies.
  2. Authenticity – This is the most important value that I want to live by; whatever I do in life I want it to be authentically ‘me’. And in doing that, I have the identity that I’ve always so desperately sought; I’m unique, and don’t have to abide by any rules other than the rule that I will always do what is right by me.
  3. Compassion – This is a quality that I want people to recognise in me and remember me for. No matter how bad I am feeling about myself or my life, by showing compassion to others I will be doing something worthwhile.

Maybe if we all turned down the ‘perfectionist’ dial, and channelled greater effort into being true to ourselves whilst simultaneously compassionate to others, the world would be full interesting, contented and accepting people?