Call to Action: Stop Modeling Perfectionism

In continuation of my previous posts elaborating on some usable and practical ideas for creating healthier mindsets toward reducing the risk of disordered eating and eating disorders, I will discuss the need to stop modeling perfectionism. Perfectionism, the inability to accept that anything less than perfection is acceptable, is one of the only absolute risk factors for eating disorders. Most risk factors for eating disorders are tied to context, experience, and development, but perfectionism has been scientifically proven time and time again to be a particularly egregious trait that predisposes those affected by it to developing eating disorders. And those with it who develop an eating disorder tend to struggle harder, needing more types and rounds of treatment and therapy as well as experiencing higher relapse rates. In fact, those who experience perfectionism tend to have higher levels of self-criticism overall. And sadly, when developed during adolescence, perfectionism is more influential and harmful than when developed later in life.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of perfectionism modeling in our culture. In my study of our culture and communities, I found that overwhelmingly teachers, mental health professionals, physical health professionals, principals, and rabbis all expressed great concern about how much perfectionism has infiltrated our communities and how much pressure this creates for our girls. This is evident in every area of our lives, from academic pressure to shidduch pressure to thin pressure to peer pressure to having to have the perfect marriage, children, and home to cooking and baking pressure, to always having to look beautiful pressure, and many others. There is a lot of praise for and expectation to be a “superwoman” someone who gets it all done flawlessly, without complaints, struggles, or failures. And certainly she is not someone who needs any emotional help or support. This mindset creates unrealistic and unattainable goals for our daughters.

Without ever seeing their mothers struggle, acknowledge it, or share it, the girls don’t realize that imperfection is normal, expected and even more importantly, part of life. This expectation is modeled to the girls from a young age and is so ingrained in them that when they can’t live up to it, they don’t know what to do or how to cope. They feel less than, and often don’t know who or how to ask for help. Sadly, this can lead to all kinds of mental and physical negative coping strategies that are damaging and dangerous.

Studies demonstrate time and time again that mothers are a huge influence in so many areas of their daughters’ lives, from body image to their relationship with food to how they cope with stress to how they value themselves to much more. And this is conveyed whether the mother means to do it or not, as children pick up on what we do and not what on we say. On some level girls aspire to emulate their mothers and make them proud, so if a mother never acknowledges her own struggles and stresses occasionally, her daughters will not either, nor will they have the needed tools and ultimately, this will be passed down to their own children as well.

Expectations of perfectionism, then, reduce self-esteem and prevent girls from acknowledging and getting help for their issues. For those afflicted with an eating disorder it is even harder, as many mothers can’t bear to recognize and accept this diagnosis or see that their daughter is struggling and in need of help. Eating disorders become shameful and can create significant stigma not only for the one affected, but for the entire family, but that is a topic for another week…

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