In this personal story written by Emily Formea we learn about the link between perfectionism and eating disorders. She has some wonderful advice for parents facing similar challenges.
I struggled with an eating disorder for 10 years of my life! In fact, I suffered from multiple types throughout my decade-long war between me, my body, and my plate.
I was diagnosed with anorexia in the seventh grade. My eating disorder turned into the binge-restrict cycle as I entered college. Later, I became an obsessive dieter and restrictive eater. For as long as I can remember, I struggled with food, and for as long as I remember it was because of what it promised me.
I think there’s such a misconception around why people suffer from eating disorders. I always thought, “I must have just made up these rules in my head.” Or maybe I am wired differently for no apparent reason. But the truth was there was a very specific reason and personality profile that I possessed that kept me in my eating disorder for so long. It was perfectionism mixed with fake fairytales.
Perfectionism and eating disorders
I was a perfectionist to a tee. Organized, obsessive, and always controlling, I constantly tried to better myself, to achieve something, to feel worthy. Approval is something I sought in other people. My self-worth was based on earning straight A’s and achievements.
I was obsessed with trying to be ‘perfect’ and when diet culture entered my sights, my body became the target of my perfectionism. I later learned that eating disorders and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand.
So many people saw me a gifted kid, such a blessing, such an outstanding example of a young adult, etc. But deep down, I didn’t know how to calm down. I didn’t know how to relax, how to focus on myself and my well-being, how to not try to always fix others or fix my parents. I needed to be told that I was enough just as I was, and it wasn’t my job to always try to be perfect.
And this filtered into the way I struggled with food and my body image. I tried to ‘perfect’ my diet and my weight. My belief was that if I was perfect in all areas of my life, my parents would give me the acceptance and recognition I craved.
From a young age, social media, celebrities, TV shows, commercials, magazine covers, and more, taught me that successful, beautiful, rich, adored people in this world are thin. They don’t eat a lot and are always dieting or working out at the gym. They shoved this version of human value down my throat every second of every day. It’s so easy to fall into eating disorders when you suffer from perfectionism.
The fake fairytale of being thin
For me, perfectionism plus this fake fairytale in which success is measured by weight loss equaled eating disorders.
Eating disorders portray this false narrative where if you just lose some weight, all your problems will go right out the window! If you just lose 10 more pounds, then you’ll never be sad or feel insecure again. If you just eat fewer carbs, then people will love you and you’ll get a date to prom.
It’s this toxic mentality that got me deep into my disorder. I believed that if I was ‘perfect’ enough with my food, I would have a ‘perfect’ body and I would never feel sad. I would never feel lonely or anxious again.
This is the belief we must break to recover.
My parents were normal
My home life was normal! In fact, my dad hated diet foods or diet trends. He never let my brother or me count calories or fall into that mentality with food or body image. The only thing I believe that could have had a relationship to my food struggles and my home would have been that my mom was diabetic, so I think a small part of me always feared becoming diabetic. She was always counting her carbs or counting her sugars, and she needed to.
I don’t blame my mom! However, I think a part of me was more hyper-aware of food, calories, carbs, etc. than other kids were just because I was around it when I was growing up. But overall, my dad always wanted us to be active, but healthy and enjoy food freely! My parents never had a scale in our home. With food and body image, my parents were very safe and supportive of my brother and me!
What I wish my parents knew
My parents have asked, “How could we have helped you? How could we have stopped it?” I think it’s challenging because my parents always felt scared to approach the subject with me. They felt like they were letting me down, they had done something wrong, etc.
I remember my mom telling me she just didn’t know what to do or how to help me when she knew I was hurting so much!
To parents, I always say, “Understand that telling your child to just eat more or telling your child to stop dieting won’t solve any problem.” I am the perfect example of that! My parents would comment on how I never ate enough or try to make me feel guilty for not having dessert with them.
I think they thought food was the core issue when in reality my core issue was my perfectionism and my low sense of self-worth or self-esteem. I wish my parents had not treated my disorder as something to whisper about or something that I was too silly to understand. Strangely, I think parents not only blame themselves, but they also don’t believe that the child knows what is going on or can help themselves.
For me, I always felt watched by my parents. My parents knew I wasn’t eating enough or was losing a lot of weight quickly, but they never came to me with that worry. They never brought up the subject with me. They never really asked me how I was doing or was I really hurting. It was more than just watching me to make sure I was eating enough, and if I wasn’t, they would make me eat more.
My parents did the best they could
I think my parents did the best that they could! There is so little information out there for parents who have kids with eating disorders. They didn’t know how to help me or what was truly going on in my head. I would say to parents:
1. Don’t treat your child like they don’t know what’s going on. I knew I was struggling with an eating disorder. I just didn’t know how to stop it.
2. Don’t just keep pushing food into them. Try to find the root problem or pain that caused them to struggle with food in the first place.
3. Make them feel safe. That you don’t blame them for having an eating disorder. Let them know that you trust them, love them, and want to help them.
4. Never make them feel watched. I know this one is hard, but this created a separation between my parents and me. It seemed like I was always being watched or talked about, but never talked to. I felt like my parents sometimes thought I was trying to trick them or bamboozle them by not eating instead of recognizing how much pain I was enduring and how I just didn’t know how to help myself.
How I recovered
I finally recovered after battling a 10-year eating disorder in 2019 just after I graduated college. My parents were not involved in my treatment. Part of me wishes they were involved, but part of me does not. Let me explain:)
I think I would have gotten more frustrated had they been involved once I was an adult. When I recovered, it was because I wanted it for myself. I set my mind to it on my own. So I took control of my recovery. But I wish my parents had approached the subject sooner rather than me having to come to them with all this baggage from years and years!
I think just knowing that they loved me, that they were there, that they really had always tried their best, made me confident to seek treatment on my own.
What finally did help me was being open and honest with them and having them apologize for not fully understanding. It also helped that they renewed their trust in me. I know that I broke my parents’ trust by hiding food or lying about it. But when I started to recover, I needed to know that they supported me and trusted me!
I needed them to understand that I didn’t want to not eat, I just needed time to heal.
Here’s what I think kids need from parents during recovery:
- See them as trustworthy
- Help your child feel safe and supported
- Don’t act like your child brought this upon themselves
- Give them time to heal
- Don’t speak about eating disorder recovery as if it’s really as simple as just eating more
- Help them feel seen and heard
- Listen with an open heart
- Don’t get frustrated
My parents definitely did the best they could. And their support once I entered recovery was important! I’m so glad to be on the other side of my eating disorder now.
Emily Formea is the founder of Sincerely, XO Emily. She provides eating disorder recovery coaching specifically for people who identify as perfectionists. Her 6-week Food Freedom online course includes topics like food obsession, identity, perfectionism, and control. Her book, Gaining a Life, is her story of eating disorder recovery.