We live in a world that is obsessed with physical perfection. Magazine covers, movies, television shows, and catalogs show nonstop images of gorgeous women and men. The message they send is that physical perfection should be everyone's goal, and if you're not perfect you should do everything possible to fix your flaws. If you don't look like a Victoria's Secret model, then get to work! Starve yourself, work out until you collapse, dye your hair, paint your nails, tan your skin, dress in expensive new clothes, whiten your teeth, apply makeup. If that doesn't work, have your face lifted, your boobs enlarged, your lips pillowed, your wrinkles botox, and your thigh fat vacuumed away. The media sets ideals of beauty that only a tiny percentage of women can attain.
It's impossible, especially if you're a perfectionist, not to be affected by all the pressure our society places on thinness, attractiveness, and physical beauty. We are programmed to look for blemishes and dwell on what's wrong rather than what's right. The fact is, only 1 in 30,000 women have the body type to be a model, and yet somehow, the other 29,999 of us feel like we're failing because we don't.
Black-and-white thinking is the most common cognitive distortion.
It leads a perfectionist to think that if she can't do something perfectly, she shouldn't do it at all. For example, you know you're overweight, and you know that losing a few pounds would improve your health. But you tell yourself that if you can't become a size 6, why bother even trying?
Let's say you're watching what you eat, but at lunchtime, you eat a delicious donut. Instead of being careful with the rest of the day, the "what the hell" effect takes over, and you eat junk all day. You've already ruined things with the donut – so what the hell, go ahead and have a half-dozen cookies, three handfuls of chips, a plateful of cheese and crackers, and a big scoop of ice cream. You can start over tomorrow.
Another common example of black-and-white thinking is telling yourself that if you have only a few minutes to exercise, there's no point in bothering because a little bit of exercise has no value. In fact, short bouts of exercise can do as much as – or perhaps even more than – long workout sessions. Doing a twenty-minute walk is better than not doing a forty-five-minute workout session. But we go for a twenty-minute walk and minimize its importance because it's not as good as an hour of spinning.
The "baby step" approach is the complete opposite of what perfectionists are used to. We, perfectionists, don't like baby steps – we like big, giant steps. We like to leap! When we set out to lose weight, we pick a dramatic weight-loss goal, an unrealistic exercise plan, and the diet of a monk. We start out full of excitement and purpose and stick to our goals like glue for three days. Then something happens – like a meeting runs long – and we have to skip a workout.
Because we miss a workout, we dispense with our Spartan diet and gobble up a double cheeseburger at lunch. Then we gave up on the whole thing because we weren't able to do it all perfectly.
It's hard for perfectionists, but taking baby steps is an effective way to achieve weight loss or any other goal. Taking baby steps with exercise leads you naturally to weight loss and healthier eating – not on day one, but eventually. As opposed to thinking, you have to lose one hundred pounds, think about taking a five-minute walk once a day. Next week, increase your walk to ten minutes. And so on. People who take baby steps can eventually run marathons.
They can lose dozens of pounds. But it takes time and patience, two skills that tend to be in short supply among perfectionists. Ten minutes here and there doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. Even occasional workouts help.
It would be great if you could always eat well. But it's also impossible. If you feel angry at yourself for less than 100 percent compliance to a healthy diet, it's time to change the way you think and follow the 80/20 eating plan. With this plan, if you eat nutritiously for 80 percent of your diet, you can be less careful about the other 20 percent. The key to the 80/20 plan is that it is based on the realistic expectation that although you can't eat nutritiously all the time, you can do it most of the time.
In terms of their body image, perfectionists see themselves as fat or skinny. There is no healthy middle ground.
And the media feeds these perfectionist attitudes. The perfect way to look is shoved in our faces on magazine covers and social networks. The Perfectionist overlooks the fact that most people do not look like supermodels – even supermodels do not look like supermodels due to editing software, which brushes away any imperfections.
Being flesh and blood rather than perfected digital images, the Perfectionists always find some fault in their appearance. Their all-or-nothing mindset magnifies every blemish, every deviation from their idealized image. They become obsessed with the extra two pounds they may have gained or with the wrinkles that they think mars their complexion. Perfectionists take extreme measures to eliminate these perceived imperfections, whether through repeated plastic surgery, invasive beauty treatments, or starvation.
In their all-or-nothing world, they are either on a perfect regime of dieting or off the diet completely. The irony is that even in the midst of eating a gallon of ice cream, Perfectionists derive little enjoyment from it; the knowledge that they have failed, prevents them from enjoying what they are eating.
You don't have to be oblivious to the way you look or to what you eat. However, the standards you hold yourself to are meant to be human rather than superhuman. You need to understand the difference between a real person and a picture that has been worked on inch by inch on Photoshop. And if you are concerned with following a healthy diet or with your weight, do not berate yourself if you succumb to temptation once in a while. Slipping up from time to time should not drive you from one extreme to another: recognize and accept your own humanity – your fallibility – be compassionate toward yourself.
Do what you can to take media images out of your line of sight: for example, Cancel your subscriptions to magazines that fixate on beauty and perfection, avoid television shows in which women flaunt perfect bodies. You can't cut it all out, but you can reduce your exposure.
What we see in photos is not what these women really look like.
Even the women whom most of us would consider perfect once the makeup artists and stylists are done with them are photoshopped into ultra-perfection.
Why is it that if a friend makes a mistake, we can forgive her, but when we make mistakes, we beat ourselves up? That's what perfectionists tend to do. We can't accept the fact that we are not perfect. We believe that if we mess up once, everything will fall apart and go to hell.
For example, when a nonperfectionist on a diet eats an unplanned brownie, she forgives herself and simply decides to skip dessert tomorrow to make up for it.
When you eat something you hadn't planned to eat or miss a workout, pay attention to the automatic thoughts that flood through your mind. Say you eat too much ice cream. Automatic thoughts immediately start berating you for lacking self-discipline and losing control.
When you recognize these thoughts, immediately visualize a big stop sign. Take a deep breath and ask yourself why you're saying these things to yourself. Then deliberately and gently reframe the thought. Remember the four steps of thought-stopping: Stop, breathe, reflect, and choose. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a friend.
This is the end of lesson 7. In the next lesson, I'll talk about how to overcome the fear of failure.