Perfectionism: A roadblock to weight loss, hormone balance, and healing.
A very committed client of mine is still struggling to lose weight despite healthy eating and daily moderate exercise. From the outside, it seems like she’s doing everything right. So what’s up? Why aren’t the pounds coming off?
This situation is all too common. Chances are, many of you reading this can relate to this, or could at one point or another in your life. The thing is, what I’m about to address isn’t limited to weight loss struggles, it affects every aspect of health – from hormone balance to healing.
Diet and exercise aren’t the only pieces of the health puzzle. Yup, you read that correctly!
In fact, diet and exercise fall to numbers two and three on my list of priorities especially when I’m helping women with hormone balance or even healing support for cancer.
Stay with me on this. I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s go back to my client (I’ll call her Debbie).
During our most recent session, I began to notice certain words Debbie was using. She said she was “disappointed” in herself for not losing weight. She said she knew she probably “wouldn’t lose weight” because through the years she’s tried everything and gotten nowhere. She said she “should have” done this or “could have” done that, to get better results. She even said she was “ashamed” that she hadn’t put more effort into the plan we had discussed. Right then and there I knew what was blocking her progress.
Debbie expressed shame, guilt, and disappointment, and I could tell that she was feeling all of these deep inside. Her voice sounded defeated. Frustrated. These emotions were the roadblock. Not diet, not lack of exercise.
Negative emotions and the stress response.
Here’s the thing: every time you feel a negative emotion (anger, fear, guilt, shame, resentment, worry . . . to name a few) your mind sends a signal telling the rest of your body that you are being threatened. The body responds to the threat by initiating a sequence of events that helps you get away and survive the threat. This is called the “stress response”.
Of course, the problem is that usually there isn’t something to run away from. Instead, this threat is traffic, financial concerns, relationship issues, over-exercise (yup!), or . . . perfectionism. You can’t run away from any of those things like you could from a saber-toothed tiger way back in the day. Back then you either got away or were eaten. The threat was temporary, either way. Today, your worries, your concerns, or your self-perception is rarely temporary. That means your body’s stress response could be turned on more often than not.
What the stress response means to your health
When your mind perceives that there is a threat, your autonomic nervous system – the part of your body that controls automatic functions like heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and so on – switches into sympathetic mode. The sympathetic part of your nervous system is the one that makes sure your body is primed to “get away”. To do that, your body mobilizes all of your energy and sends it to your extremities and to increase heart rate, blood pressure, and anything that will allow you to be faster right now. On the flip side, your body pulls all of the energy away from functions that it deems not essential for your survival at that exact time. Things like digestion, detoxification, metabolism, immune function, hormone function, and your healing response are slowed significantly or shut down completely. After all, you really don’t need these things to get away from a tiger, right? Now, all of that freed up energy can go towards helping you run to safety.
Your body’s stress response is a very cool and complex survival mechanism. The problem is, if it’s always “turned on” because of chronic stress and negative emotions, none of those functions I mentioned above will be working properly, and that will sabotage efforts to lose weight, balance hormones, or even heal your cells.
So, back to my client.
For the remainder of our session, Debbie and I focused on the source of her feelings and how they affect her health goals, including weight loss. She agreed that beating herself up was not doing anything positive. In fact, her self-talk was like a downward spiral that made her feel like she could never succeed. She admitted that she has always been a perfectionist, expecting more from herself than from anyone else.
Perfectionism gets in the way of progress.
I don’t know who first coined that phrase, but they were so right! Since perfection is not attainable, the expectation of perfection can only have one outcome: negative, self-abusive (would you talk to a friend like you talk to yourself sometimes?) emotions like my client had been expressing during our session. It’s literally self-sabotage.
So what can you do to rid yourself of this roadblock? Here are a couple strategies that work really well with practice:
First, practice being aware of negative self-talk, then change it. When you realize you’re beating yourself up, change the dialogue to something positive. It will feel fake at first, but it’s the same concept as physical fitness. You have to practice and work out to keep your body fit and healthy. The same thing is true of your mind and your stress response.
Second, work on changing your perspective of what “perfection” or “doing your best” actually means. A great personal example of this has to do with my mother-in-law. She is known for saying “best I could do” anytime something doesn’t turn out the way she would like. Being a recovering perfectionist myself, her response baffled me at first. I asked her how she can say it’s the best she could do if, in fact, she didn’t reach her goal or meet her obligation or whatever it happened to be. Can’t we always do better?
She explained that, while she may not have been “at her best” at a specific moment in time, she still “did her best”. She was simply acknowledging that life isn’t a constant. Everything around us and inside of us is changing, minute to minute, second to second. Sometimes we aren’t thinking clearly – maybe we’re distracted by a temporary problem. At times we just aren’t at the top of our game physically. Maybe our immune system is fighting off a cold or we had a late night.
Once she explained, I could totally relate. I know that during certain times of the month I feel like I can handle just about anything, while at other times (likely due to hormone fluctuation), one tiny problem can just about break me. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or drained I guarantee that, even though I’m trying my best to be there for everyone, meet my obligations, pay my bills on time, eat the right foods . . . some of those things may not happen, or if they do, they may not happen “well”! The strength of mind and body just may not be there. So I think the “best I could do” perspective really makes sense.
“Best you could do” = health, balance, healing.
So, when your body is not responding to stress or a negative emotion, your autonomic nervous system that I mentioned earlier, stays in “parasympathetic mode”, which means that all of your energy can be used for functions that relax and restore your body. Your immune system gets a boost, your liver is able to filter all of the junk out efficiently, your hormones are not on high alert so they can balance and function, and, in the case of my client, food can be effectively broken down, digested, and used for energy.
The bottom line: the best way to get and stay healthy, whether you’re trying to lose weight or balance your hormones or even heal from cancer, is to stop beating yourself up and take on a realistic perspective when it comes to your expectations. This will minimize the stress response in your body so that the energy can go to making you healthy rather than protecting you from that non-existent saber-toothed tiger!
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