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Perfectionism in its Death Throes

Yesterday Today Tomorrow written on paper sheet with pin in the shape of a staircase on cork board

The illusion of perfectibility is hard to escape. The message “be better,” “do more,” “you’re not good enough,” is littered across the advertising landscape, and in our fast-paced modern world, the competition to be busy and never content with who you are and what you have is ubiquitous. The idea that one must keep pursuing perfection is accepted and glorified, and celebrities, business titans and other influencers are praised and admired when they’ve sacrificed everything in order to reach the dizzying heights of success in their fields.

Success, in and of itself, is a worthy goal, but it is the dogged obsession and drive for perfection that is exhausting and dangerous. Additionally, what is success? Who defines it? When do you know if you’ve reached it?

Perfectionism in our work, the cultivation of our image and our performance leads only to despair because the goalposts are always moving. We know that perfection is impossible, but it is a merciless driver because we live in a world so consumed by it. How can we possibly “allow” ourselves to sit back, relax and be content? Doesn’t that make us lazy/a loser/unmotivated/detestable?

The black-and-white thinking accompanied by perfectionism seeps into every crevice of life when allowed. And when confronted with large, complex problems in our lives, perfectionism narrows the focus and says, “If you can just succeed in controlling and perfecting THIS small thing, you’ll feel better.” However, for those of us who have recovered from an eating disorder, we know this lie well and recognize just how empty it is.

In recovery, it is essential to pull up the roots of one of the biggest drivers of eating disordered behavior: the illusion of perfectibility. We must repeat, even preach to ourselves every day on the journey that perfection is not humanly possible, no matter how much the world screams to us that it is. And we must challenge the voice: what if I was content? What if I did surrender control? What if I did throw off the shackles of comparison, anxiety and self-doubt and just rested in who I am, today? What if?

In fighting against perfectionism, we must recognize that we battle a toxic mixture of a culture that promotes it and an inner critic that holds each of us to unimaginable standards, which we’ve crafted as the yardstick for our worth. Perfectionism can be overcome by surrender, and transformed into a healthy motivation for recovery and healing. But first, the death grip on the illusory rewards of perfection must be released.

Cultivating contentment and acceptance in such a materialistic society is a challenge, but every day in recovery that we commit to radical, counter-cultural contentment, we break the death grip a little more. We radiate compassion and empathy to those around us, giving them the permission to surrender as well so they can leave the lies of perfectionism to rot in darkness, where they belong.

About Kirsten Haglund

“Since my own recovery, I am passionate about educating and empowering women to get the care they need to live amazing, productive and healthy lives,” said Haglund. “I see the same compassion and desire in the Timberline Knolls team and look forward to being a part of this work of restoring women to health.”

Haglund will continue to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on more than 20 college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders.

View all posts by Kirsten Haglund