Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist
If you’d met me ten or fifteen years ago, you’d have met a completely person.
In high school and college, I was a self-described “ball of stress.” You could almost see the sparks flying out of me.
I was a “perfect” student: I got straight As, practiced classical piano for hours a day, and worked hard to be liked by my teachers and classmates. I went to a top-tier university and graduated magna cum laude. I defined success by being as close to perfect as I could.
The only problem was that I was miserable, plagued by anxiety and the weight of self-imposed expectations and impossible standards. This didn’t just affect my grades, friendships, and general happiness, it clearly and definitively impacted my relationship with food and my body.
I remember looking at my profile in the bathroom mirror when I was in high school. skimming my hands along my sides and imagining what it would be like to be tiny like the other girls I went to school with. I idolized the willpower girls with eating disorders had, thinking that if I could just starve myself, my problems would fade away.
College didn’t make things any better. I had recently lost twenty pounds doing Weight Watchers, which gave me the impression that I could easily control my body by controlling what I ate and how I exercised. With all-you-can eat dining halls, alcohol, and the emotional eating that went with being away from home, the pounds flew back on, like magnets flying to their polar opposites. I was completely devastated and decided that what I needed was more: more control, more restriction, more exercise.
I don’t have to tell you the rest of the story for you to figure out how this played out.
I would be “good” for as many days as I could string together, eating no more than 1,200 calories per day and doing two hours per day on the elliptical. Voracious hunger and cravings would rear their heads and I’d find myself forearm deep in a jar of peanut butter or sneaking my roommates “junk” food because I had none of my own.
“I’ll be better next time; I won’t binge next time.”
Years passed this way. I was committed to overcoming what I believed were a lack of willpower and inherent weakness.
A couple years after graduating from college, things began to shift. I was working as a middle school teacher, which taught me that control was a complete farce. I was at the mercy of a room of eleven-year-olds. A perfectly-crafted lesson plan could be derailed by a fire drill or a student’s joke. I learned it was better to be flexible, to have a plan but also be ready to roll with whatever the day threw at me.
At the same time, I discovered the healthy eating blogosphere. I saw examples of women my age who were demonstrating healthy eating in a new way than I’d ever imagined. These women ate their veggies and exercised, but also ate chocolate and enjoyed time off from the gym. They showed me that food and exercise didn’t need to be at the center of my life.
I worked with therapists who helped me sift through my life, come to terms with past hurts, and connect the dots between my emotional and mental well-being and my relationship with food and my body.
I read books like “Intuitive Eating”, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. I took up distance running and enjoyed setting the goal of running a half-marathon and seeing it through. I found Les Mills BODYPUMP and BODYCOMBAT and fell in love with feeling strong and empowered.
When I went back to school at age 27 to get my Masters in Nutrition to become a Registered Dietitian, I had a powerful realization in my first semester: the outcome, especially my grades, would be the same, whether or not I stressed about it.
I learned to have faith in my abilities and to accept that “good enough is good enough.”
I was committed to learning as much as possible, not for the sake of getting top grades, but because I wanted to be able to serve my future clients to the best of my ability.
I delved deep into the challenge of stretching my mind and broadening my understanding of biology, chemistry, and nutrition.
Over the course of a few years, I learned how to knock down the impossible standards I’d once set for myself.
I learned that there was no such thing as the perfect diet and that a “perfect” diet was really a mask for an eating disorder.
I didn’t need to have food lists or rules, just a general understanding of what worked for my body. I trusted that my body would serve me if I listened to and respected it.
Most importantly, I realized that perfection was an illusion. I realized I was trying to control the uncontrollable. I thought that having everything in its place would lessen my anxiety. That if everything in my life was perfect, everyone else would see me as flawless and likable. Neither was true.
SALAD + CHOCOLATE
Don’t get me wrong: having high standards for myself has served me well.
I take pride in a job well done – whether it’s teaching a great group fitness class or giving the best care I possibly can to my nutrition clients.
I’m a recovering perfectionist: I still keep my house spotless, want to scream when my son doesn’t listen, and have to remind myself not to get hung up when we arrive anywhere more than 3 minutes late.
But I can tell you that I have a much more compassionate relationship with food and my body. I eat my salad and my chocolate.
I look in the mirror now and genuinely love the strong, sexy body I see. I see strong legs that allow me to kick serious butt in my workouts, hips that allowed me to carry and bear my now-toddler son, and a face that is uniquely mine.
I’ve learned how to slow down, be more present, and find joy in small things like watching the flailing legs of my running toddler or the comfort of a good snuggle session with my husband.
I could say that I wish I’d known twenty years ago that to find peace with my body, I had to learn to find peace with myself.
Breaking the Cycle
To break the cycle of dieting and bingeing, I had to give myself permission to listen to and respect my body, eating foods because they energized my body, not because they were “good,” low-calorie, or would help me lose weight.
I learned that I could enjoy treats on a daily basis, because eating delicious things is one of the most pleasurable experiences in life.
I learned that exercise is medicine and moving my body is a celebration of what it can do, not a punishment or way to negate what I’d eaten.
It’s been a long road, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The prize is the process of learning to let go of the rope, even though it’s taken me over a decade - and I’m still navigating it by the way! Once I gave into the process - instead of wondering, “When am I finally going to get there?!”- everything started coming together organically.
How do you start?
Make room for grace and self-compassion.
Have a goal of doing less and living more.
Wave the white flag in the battle with your body, and commit to learning a different way, even if you don’t know what it looks like yet.
I compare it to taking a road trip from Boston to Los Angeles - without a map or GPS. (I know - that may seem like a daunting, insane task, but stay with me here.) To get started, all you really have to do is figure out which way is west and start driving. There will be detours. Sometimes you’ll have to turn around and back track.
But as long as you stay patient and committed, you will figure it out. You’re smart enough to do that. And once you see the Pacific, you’ll know it was all worth ite
Jessica Edelglass is a Boston-based Registered Dietician and Metabolic Effect Level 1 Fat Loss Nutrition Coach. She is coaching her second round of Fat Loss Cooking School with FLF; mindset is her jam and Brussels sprouts are her favorite vegetable.