I think back to some of the challenges I face that you're beginning to face as well.
Trying Not to Try: The Wild Mind Workings of a Recovering Perfectionist
Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Photo by Erol Ahmed
If you are someone who has struggled with eating and body image, there’s a good chance you have also struggled with perfectionism. If this is the case for you, you’re likely no stranger to the concept of trying.
Back in the days of my eating disorder, my trying looked something like this:
- Trying to lose weight
- Trying a new diet
- Trying to recover from a binge
- Trying to work out
- Trying to work out more (Pull up a chair, this could take a while!)
- Trying to improve my looks
- Trying to get a boyfriend
- Trying to look good
- Trying to fit in
- Trying to do well in school
- Trying to be cool
- Trying to be perfect
Next up were my early years in recovery:
- Trying to listen to my body
- Trying to eat intuitively
- Trying to get it right
- Trying to let go of being perfect
- Trying to be perfect
- Trying to be balanced
- Trying to be healthy
- Trying to be a good person
- Trying not to beat myself up
- Trying to get a career
- Trying to get “likes”
- Trying to let go of caring about “likes”
- Trying to keep up with the daily grind
- Trying to do the right thing
- Trying to know what the right thing was
- Trying to look good
- Trying not to care how I looked
These days it’s more like:
- Trying to be more present
- Trying to surrender
- Trying to live in acceptance
- Trying not to get injured
- Trying to be kinder to myself
- Trying to find my glasses
- Trying to have a balanced life
- Trying to be peaceful
- Trying to welcome all emotions
- Trying to age well
- Trying to surrender to aging
- Trying to practice gratitude
- Trying not to lose my keys
- Trying to practice mindfulness
- Trying not to beat myself up
- Trying not to try so hard (I told you this could take a while!)
Recently, while on a lovely walk in the redwood forest, (my personal place of worship), I started thinking about all this trying. How for as long as I can remember, I have been trying, and then more recently, trying not to try so hard. I’d set out to take a lovely, quiet walk and commune with nature, yet that day, my mind was as busy as ever. I decided to call order in the court.
Hey! Can we give it a rest? Can we just stop trying? Can we stop trying to stop trying? Can we admit that the only reason we ever try to get or get rid of anything is because we think we will feel better if we did? Can we cut out the middle man and just cut to the chase?
And then, perhaps being witnessed by the majestic trees, the swaying ferns and the glistening creek, or perhaps because I made a conscious decision to drop trying (the new stop, drop and roll), something inside me gave way. My little tryer said, “Uncle,” and I began to steer my mind to the breeze, my feet on the ground, my arms moving in time, my breathing, a bird song. Much like pointing a tantruming child back to something soothing in the present moment, I steered my busy mind back home, back to reality.
The promises of attainment, achievement, and accomplishment will pop up again and again, I’m sure. Many of us have been raised on way too much Disney and happily-ever-afters. But I’m onto it now. I am onto my mind’s seductive nature. Our minds seduce us into thinking that if we just got this fill-in-the-blank, we would be happy, but all we have to do is remember the last several hundred things we were convinced would bring us happy-ever-after-ness to see that it’s not the case. If it were, we would have just lived happily-ever-after.
So, if you struggle with a busy little tryer inside of you, see if you can reel it back in now and then. Notice the simplicity of the moment. Remind your mind that anything you acquire will have pro’s and con’s and ups and downs so there really is nowhere to get. This is the best news of all.
In any given moment, we all have a feast of temptations to take us away from this moment. And then we have this moment. Reality. Right here. Right now. We get to choose… fantasies and fears or that which is actually, factually here. This breath. This surface. This sensation. This sound. I’m willing to give it a whirl if you are.
Andrea Wachter, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell as well as The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook. She is also the author of Getting Over Overeating for Teens. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and her personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, blogs and other services, please visit her website.
“I’m not going to help you manage an eating disorder,” my dietician flat out said to me shortly after I discharged from intensive outpatient treatment. “I’ll continue to work with you, but I won’t help you be a functioning anorexic.”
Whoa! Harsh, right? Brutally harsh, I’d say.
Her words hit me hard in the gut. I felt nauseas and defensive. I was at once insulted and found out by her remarks. After months of inpatient, day, and IOP treatment, and a commitment to long-term outpatient work with my team, I was insulted that my integrity and dedication to recovery wasn’t obvious. Had I not just left my family for a month, taken leave from my job, eaten meals I was terrified of, gained weight, persevered through calorie increases and exercise restriction, and turned myself inside out every day to heal my mind and body? Honestly, what else did she or anyone else want from me?
Still, way, way deep down, I knew my dietician was right. Yes, I had done and accomplished quite a bit during all that treatment; no one was taking that away from me. However, I admit, at the time, living as a “functioning anorexic” was quite appealing. The perfect solution.
If I could pull off being a “little sick and a little well,” if I could do just enough to keep my team and my family off my back, then surely, I’d be “doing” recovery. I’d just be doing it on my terms—or, I should say, the eating disorder’s terms. I’d prevent weight gain, still have room for a little hunger, and feel in charge of my life.
Living this way did not get me very far, and it wasn’t long before I was weary of performing, pretending, and being untruthful to myself and those I love. Merely functioning wasn’t as “safe” as I’d thought it would be. In fact, it was the exact opposite, as the threat of returning to treatment consistently came back in play every few weeks.
I may have dabbled with how “recovered” I was willing to be, but there was positively no way I would settle for being a chronically ill mother and wife. That’s where I drew the line.
And so, I kicked myself into gear by taking a more genuine and sincere approach to healing from rather than merely managing the eating disorder. I did this by adopting the attitude that recovery is a lifestyle, not a side job or something “extra” we must do.
Between therapy appointments and going to groups and keeping food logs, recovery can feel like a time-consuming side job. Over time, this attitude toward recovery can cause us to become resentful. The more resentful we become, the less motivated we are to keep up our efforts.
When respected as a lifestyle, recovery serves as the foundation from which we must attend to everything in our lives to keep us well and moving forward. To make recovery a lifestyle, I strive to let every choice I make be informed by this question: Is “x” going to support me in my healing or is it going to work against me?
Reflecting on this question guides me to honesty with myself about the people, places, and things in my life that merely help me manage an eating disorder versus those that support me in healthful ways. I choose to avoid the landmines and replace them with things that empower me and build me up. It’s not always easy, but this system of self-accountability has made a profound difference in my approach to recovery and deepened my commitment to myself.
Take a pause and ask yourself: Am I managing or healing the eating disorder? Are there thoughts, rituals, and behaviors in place that covertly are in cahoots with the eating disorder?
There’s no shame in your answer. What’s most important is taking this time to get brutally honest with yourself. I encourage you to tap into your resilience and slowly but steadily begin to loosen the grip on things that do not serve you in healthful ways and replace them with thoughts, rituals, and behaviors that do.
As you shift away from the “functioning” and “managing” mentality and embrace an intention of healing, life will ultimately become more filled with you and the goodness you have to offer this world—your gifts, talents, and passions. And I promise you, it is so worth it!
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500 is the founder of Chime Yoga Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and body image. In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia, is cofounder of the Body Kindness Project, and a partner with both the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and the Transformation Yoga Project. She is the creator of the home video series Yoga to Strengthen Body Image and Support Eating Disorder Recovery. Her writing on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery can be found on her blog as well as several influential online publications. Connect with Jennifer.
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