Are you a Perfectionist or an Optimalist?

Did you know that most (we would say 90 per cent) of the people who come into our clinics with a weight problem also tend to be perfectionists? And we believe it’s a character trait that can actually hinder, rather than support, your progress on your weight loss journey. That’s why we would love you to move closer to becoming an ‘optimalist’ (more on this later).

Look at Yourself and Your Attitudes
At our clinics, we see perfectionism range in scale, from the very rigid ‘all-or-nothing’ type thinkers to the slightly more relaxed, almost ‘closet-perfectionists’, who are incredibly hard on themselves, but may simply look like they just have ‘standards’.

I used to think I wasn’t a perfectionist – my home is tidy but by no means ‘perfect’, but when I started studying perfectionism closer, I could see I had so many of the traits and, unfortunately, my way of thinking was at the root of much of my anxiety. Worse still, perfectionism wasn’t serving me well; I couldn’t seem to break out of the constant guilt-binge cycle and stayed overweight for much of my mid twenties due, mainly, to my tendency to be in a state of ‘all or nothing’ and the all-time-favourite phrase of the perfectionist, “I’ll start on Monday”.

A Severe Case
But I was soon to learn that there were far worse cases than me. I remember I had one client who was supposed to stick to one half of a banana each day as part of her weight loss plan (one half being one portion of fruit). I presumed, mistakenly, that she understood that there was no requirement for perfectionism. But oh how wrong I was.

One day she took a whole banana, instead of half. ‘Big deal’, I hear you say. Well, to her, it was – it was a huge disaster. She told me she had ‘ruined’ her programme and that it was now ‘hopeless’. In fact, she was so serious about these perfectionist thoughts that she even wanted to give up entirely – just because of one half of a banana! Read more here about what to do when you want to give up.

Thankfully, I encouraged her otherwise and she went on to lose a considerable amount of weight, but she firstly had to learn about perfectionism and guilt in order to progress. We discovered that she never felt ‘good enough’ growing up; and that led to her fear of failure (or of even trying sometimes because, if she didn’t really try, she wouldn’t fail). So her outlook was ‘all or nothing’ – I’m either failing or succeeding, with no room for anything in-between, which she discovered was both self-sabotaging and highly unrealistic.

The Many Downsides
Perfectionists will tend to list this trait as their ‘double edged sword’ – in other words, although it may be stressful to constantly hold themselves to – sometimes impossibly – high standards, they also partly like this tendency as it also means they ‘get things done’, and done well usually.

But the upside is something of a myth – you don’t need to be a perfectionist to do a job well. And, despite what most people think, researchers have discovered that perfectionism is actually linked to poor physical health and an increased risk of death (51 per cent higher than in those who report not to be perfectionists). This is believed to be the result of the highly stressed state that many perfectionists live in (and the unhealthy ‘coping strategies’ they tend to use; such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and overeating or eating junk food).

Most perfectionists smile on the outside, but feel frustrated, exhausted and unappreciated on the inside. They are also more likely to become burnt out as they rarely ask for help – that, of course, would mean admitting that they are flawed in some way! So they’ll often wait until they reach rock bottom before asking for support – sound familiar anyone? Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results…so maybe it’s time for a new approach?

Ask Yourself Important Questions
Perfectionists tend to get bogged down in details and worry a lot about the little things, such as having the ‘right’ plates for a dinner party. This can intensify coming up to particular events, such as hosting a dinner party of having in-laws to stay. Keep an eye on yourself close to these events. Notice your anxiety levels. To help yourself to feel less anxious, and to enjoy things more, ask yourself these simple questions:

Does it really matter?
 What is the worst that could happen?
 Am I worried about being judged? And why do I presume I’ll be judged so harshly (is that realistic)?
 What is the most important thing here today (eg. a child’s communion – it’s about my child, not about having the ‘perfect’ outfit)
 Will this still matter tomorrow, next week or next year?
 What level of imperfection am I willing to accept in my life?
 Can I come up with lower, more reasonable standards to set for myself (and others)?

Strive to be an Optimalist Instead
We know it’s impossible to completely change your personality, nor would we want you to. But how about adapting your natural traits to become more favourable and helpful (to yourself mostly, but also to others)?

The language of a perfectionist tends to include lost of ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements, such as ‘I should have a tidy house when someone stops by unannounced’. How realistic or rational are these thoughts; and do they serve you (or others) well?

An optimalist, on the other hand, is less rigid in their thinking (and their language) and they will accept that failure will happen along the way; instead of viewing it as a reason to give up, they’ll try to learn from it and move on. They will accept that they have an internal negative voice, but they will make the firm decision to stop listening to it as it only impedes their progress. Read more about how to silence your own weight loss critic here.

A perfectionist will focus on the destination (ie. getting to their goal weight), whereas the optimalist will see it as a journey, and will tend to see that journey as an irregular spiral of ‘ups and downs’, rather than one straight line (ie. they will accept that some weeks their weight may stay the same or even go up a little but that, hopefully, most weeks it will go down).

Finally, the optimalist is forgiving of themselves and others. They accept that a slip-up isn’t always a bad thing. They know that it’s a matter of adapting your course and getting back on track – that’s what matters most at the end of the day and that’s what differentiates real success and failure when it comes to weight loss.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle