Perfectionism and Certain Thought Patterns Predict Binge Eating

-Neil Petersen

Who is most at risk for engaging in binge eating, or compulsive overeating?

Two articles published in the January edition of the journal Eating Behaviors are shedding light on this question.

The first, by researchers from Canada, homes in on the link between binge eating and perfectionism. Previous research has suggested a connection between the two, but it hasn’t been clear which way the causation goes: does being perfectionistic make people more likely to binge eat, or do people become more perfectionistic in response to binge eating?

If the former sounds more plausible to you, you’re right!

The study, which followed 200 undergraduate women for a month, showed that having more perfectionistic concerns predisposes people to binge eating. However, the opposite is not true – binge eating does not increase people’s perfectionistic concerns.

This result indicates that perfectionism, and in particular “negative” perfectionism – being self-critical, obsessing over mistakes, etc. – can put people at risk for binge eating.

The second study published identified another factor that might make people more susceptible to compulsive overeating: certain patterns in the way people think about food.

One of these patterns has to do with what psychologists call desire thinking. Desire thinking is related to craving. As the name suggests, it involves thinking about and imagining something you want. It has been linked to addiction and compulsive behaviors.

In this case, the researchers found that desire thinking about food is related to binge eating. People who engage in more food desire thinking are more likely to engage in binge eating.

A second thought pattern, food thought suppression, also ups people’s risk. Once again, the name tells most of the story: food thought suppression means intentionally avoiding thoughts about food.

Together, these studies point to several ways people’s thought patterns and attitudes predict compulsive overeating. Some of the patterns that put people at risk (food desire thinking and food thought suppression) have to do with food specifically, while others (perfectionistic concerns) have to do with how people go through life more generally. In all cases, though, understanding these risk factors for binge eating should make it easier for professionals to recognize and treat binge eating.

A Sure-Fire Way to Silence Your Inner Critic

You can learn to dis-identify from the inner critic voice in your head.

Most of us have been conditioned from childhood to be our own harshest critics. That inner judge can shadow us, scrutinizing our every move and making us quite miserable. For years, I’ve been working on turning the inner critic into an inner ally who will refuse to disparage me in ways I would never disparage those I care about. I’ve made a lot of progress, but that critic can still surprises me with an unexpected visit.

This happened recently on my daughter’s last wedding anniversary. I started reminiscing about that special day. My daughter and son-in-law lived across the country but the wedding was in our hometown, so I was responsible for making all the arrangements. I worked hard at it, lining up everything from decorations to flowers to food to a limousine to pick them and take them to the airport.

I always tell people that her wedding was one of the happiest days of my life, and so I was surprised that when I thought about it on her anniversary, the first thing that popped into my mind was that the post-ceremony luncheon was delayed for 45 minutes because the bread hadn’t arrive from the local bakery. The second thing that popped into my mind was how the limousine driver I’d hired to arrive at 3:00 p.m. to whisk the bride and groom away still wasn’t there by 3:20. I remembered how I stood by myself in the parking lot, fretting and worrying, instead of mingling inside with the guests.

The biggest surprise to me as I recalled that day, though, was that I was still blaming myself for these two minor glitches. I call them minor because no one else was bothered by them. As for the bread, the guests were mingling and chatting, happily drinking champagne and eating appetizers until the luncheon started. And my daughter and son-in-law weren’t anxiously waiting for the limousine: they were inside having a great time!

Yet, here I was, many years after the wedding, still hosting the inner critic with its familiar “shoulds”: “You should have called the bakery on the morning of the wedding and confirmed the time for the luncheon to begin. You should have called the limo company and made sure they had the time right for arriving.”

Dis-Indentifying from the Inner Critic

Realizing how ridiculous it was for me to still be blaming myself after all these years, I asked myself if there was a way to silence that inner critic for good regarding this special day in my life. I decided to try a technique called dis-identifying—that is, not treating the inner critic voice as an authentic, fixed feature of myself. Dis-identifying in this way can take many forms. Some people find it helpful to give the critic a name: “Oh, it’s Ms. Nag again.” Doing this keeps you from identifying with the voice as an immutable part of your personality.

A metaphor my husband likes to use is to imagine that the inner critic is a voice on a stage, and you’re in the balcony listening to it. I decided to try this. I imagined myself in the balcony. There was the critic, onstage, going on and on about bread and a limousine that I, in the audience, couldn’t care less about. In fact, it was boring to listen to.

Then I considered what (as an audience member) would have made for better onstage viewing and listening. The answer was easy: a focus on all the positives from the wedding. After all, they far outweighed the negatives in both number and intensity:

  1. The beauty and emotional impact of the ceremony itself, which the bride and groom had planned with the officiate who was none other than my husband—the bride’s own father.
  2. How my daughter had asked our town’s beloved high school music teacher to play the piano for the ceremony, which made the occasion special for so many people in the room.
  3. The tears that came to my eyes as my daughter danced her first dance with her father to a song she’d chosen: Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
  4. My son’s carefully prepared—and hilarious—toast to the bride and groom.
  5. The gathering together of so many people who were dear to me.

Recalling all of this worked to silence the inner critic. Does any wedding take place without a single glitch? I don’t think so, and yet this was the impossible standard I’d been holding myself to all these years. I’d been clinging to an idea of how I thought things should be, and in doing so, had continue to feed the inner critic and pollute my treasured memories of that day.

By dis-identifying from the inner critic, I was able to look at the wedding from a different perspective. I felt good about how hard I’d worked to make it a special day for my daughter and son-in-law. And I also felt compassion for the mother-of-the-bride who, all dressed up, had stood alone in the parking lot for a half hour, while everyone else was inside, having fun.

Dis-identifying in this way immunized me from anything the inner critic might try to say that could interfere with the joy I felt as I remembered that day. In fact, a warm sense of emotional well-being led to a big smile coming over my face.

I hope you’ll try one of these dis-identifying techniques the next time your inner critic shows up. You’ll recognize that the critic is present because you’ll start to direct self-criticism and blame at yourself. When this happens, begin by reminding yourself that, although you can sometimes learn from past mistakes, beating yourself up over them serves no useful purpose and will only make you feel bad about yourself.

Then, dis-identify with that negative inner voice, either by giving it a name that’s not associated with you or by imagining it’s on a stage and you’re a neutral third-party in the balcony being forced to listen to its negative and boring chatter.

– © 2016 Toni Bernhard.

Never Good Enough

If you’re so displeased with yourself, both mentally and physically, it’s not so mysterious that you’re falling into two common cognitive traps: perfectionism and self-downing.

Feeling better about who you are as a person means talking to yourself respectfully and rationally. You wouldn’t speak so harshly to your worst enemy. Calling yourself names doesn’t help, and only makes things worse. Fortunately, there are some issues you can address to counteract this tendency.

Perfectionism has many aspects, including the valuable desire to “do better,” “look better,” and generally keep to high standards. So far, so good. However, since even Olympic gold medalists fall short of perfection most of the time, we’d better accept that perfection simply doesn’t exist. Striving toward betterment is great. The quest motivates us, and keeps us on a good path for the long run. But the idea that you can and should attain perfection will crimp your style, stunt your growth, and make you miserable. The solution, fortunately, is within your power: Talk gently and rationally to yourself about your goal and give up the need for perfection.

Secondly, the self-downing habit is a facet of perfectionism that also makes you do less well and contributes to your feeling badly about yourself. Why include a rating of your entire self (your very being) for having trouble in one of your classes? You’re making your performance at this task, at this time, a measure of your worth as a person—and you don’t have to.

It’s much better to keep your high standards, and give up the idea that you have to be perfect. Scratch the idea that if you’re not a sparkly Brangelina, you are therefore totally undesirable and incapable. You’ll start to do much better in many ways when you get off your own back and focus on what you can control.