ADVICE: The Dangers of Perfectionism

The below is a a guest post from Maddy Tyers, Australian actress and children’s entertainer.

CONTENT WARNING: The following article mentions eating disorders and mental illness. If this triggers something or you need to talk to someone, please called Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Whether it’s obsessively learning lines for an audition or vacuuming the house serval times before a guest arrives, for as far back as I can remember, I have identified as a ‘perfectionist’. As a young child, I was outgoing, creative and adventurous but I also had an incredibly sensitive side. This sensitive side was often triggered by crippling self-doubt, overly critical thoughts and an excessive need for approval. Researchers state that unlike high achievers who are driven by a goal to achieve, perfectionists are driven by a fear of failure (WebMD Archives, 2003). For a long time, I saw my perfectionistic personality traits as one of my major strengths but after battling an eating disorder for over a decade I have since recognised that this ‘strength’ had simultaneously become one of my greatest weaknesses.

Perfectionism can present differently in each individual but widespread research (Fursland et al., 2009; Brown et al., 2012; Wade & Tiggemann, 2013) acknowledges that some of the most common behaviours and characteristics include:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Highly self-critical
  • Pushed by fear
  • Unrealistic standards
  • Fear of failure/Concern over mistakes
  • Difficulty in decision making
  • Reassurance seeking
  • Focussed on results
  • Defensiveness
  • Excessive organising or list making
  • Self-control
  • Overcompensation
  • Depressed by unmet goals

The similarity between the above perfectionist traits and the symptoms of someone presenting with an eating disorder is startling. It is clear to see that the two go hand-in-hand. According to extensive studies, perfectionism has been identified as a potential risk factor for the development of an eating disorder (Boone et al., 2012; Wade & Tiggemann, 2013; Brown et al., 2012) but also plays a role in the maintenance, and treatment of eating disorders (Bardone-Cone and colleagues (2010) p.139).

I was eight years old when I first began to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and toxic behaviours around eating. After a series of big changes in my life, including shifting to a new school, I found that obsessing over my food intake and weight gave me the sense of control I craved. Positive comments from friends and family applauding my ‘healthy’ food choices and ‘disciplined’ attitude toward exercise fuelled the all-or-nothing mantra I was living by and encouraged the negative voice in my head. Despite their well intentions, these remarks served to further emphasise my perfectionist behaviours and raised the bar of the already unrealistic standards I had set for myself. What started out as a self-control mechanism and a goal to become the ‘perfect Maddy’ soon triggered the onset of a 15-year battle with anorexia. My perfectionism had ironically proved itself to be far from ‘perfect’.

The number of people in Australia with an eating disorder at any given time is estimated to be around 1 million, or approximately 4% of the population (Deloitte Access Economics, 2015). They are manipulative, debilitating and harmful mental illnesses that are becoming more and more prevalent in younger children. Statistics show that eating disorders can affect people of all ages but are increasingly being diagnosed in those aged 5 years and younger (NEDC, 2017). The society we live in today places a huge emphasise on the importance of attaining the ‘perfect’ body, lifestyle, career and family in order to be fulfilled and happy in our lives. Yet under the surface this strive for ‘perfection’ is causing a huge amount of damage and setting an unattainable example for the younger generations. Imagine the cultural shift we would have if we redirected our desire for ‘perfection’ down a more positive and constructive path that helped uplift and inspire those around us instead of pulling them down?

It has taken my family and I many years of heartache, countless hospital visits and endless therapy sessions to find the appropriate road to recovery but I can now say I am happy, healthy and able to utilise my perfectionistic attributes in positive ways. My perfectionism helps me strive to perform well in my job, it encourages me to continuously challenge myself and to be the best wife/sister/friend/daughter I can be. My perfectionism has also helped me push outside my comfort zone and pen my very first children’s picture story book, ‘When Anna Came To Stay’ that aims to give a voice of hope to those suffering from negative body image and low self-esteem. Perfectionism can be dangerous when it goes unrecognised and unacknowledged but when channelled in the right direction, can also be a real ‘super-power’.

References

Boone, L., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., & Braet, C. (2012). Is there a perfectionist in each of us? An experimental study on perfectionism and eating disorder symptoms. Appetite, 59(2), 531–540.

Brown, A. J., Parman, K. M., Rudat, D. A., & Craighead, L. W. (2012). Disordered eating, perfectionism, and food rules. Eating Behaviors, 13(4), 347–353.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Information & Educational Services; US.

Fursland, A., Raykos, B. and Steele, A. (2009). Perfectionism in Perspective. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.

Wade, T.D., O’Shea, A., & Shafran, R. (2016). Perfectionism and eating disorders. In F. Sirois & D.S. Molnar (Eds.), Perfectionism, Health, and Well-being (pp. 205-222). Switzerland: Springer.


About the expert

Most recognisable from her recent appearance on the hit reality TV show Lego Masters Australia, Maddy Tyers is an actor, presenter, children’s entertainer, voice-over artist and writer based in Melbourne.  Maddy has appeared in a host of Australian TV series, short films and features including Border Protection SquadNeighboursBack In Very Small Business and City Homicide but is best known for her supporting lead role as Amanda Tucci in the hit kid’s TV series The Elephant Princess. Broadcast in over 35 countries across the world (nationally onNetwork 10, The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon), The Elephant Princess is a hugely popular children fantasy program that won the 2009 AFI award for the Best Children’s Television Drama. 

Away from performing, Maddy is passionate about sharing her lived experience of an eating disorder and body image positivity with school students and parent groups for the Butterfly Foundation. Sharing her experience with young Australians and seeing the impact that it has was the inspiration behind When Anna Came To Stay. 

Image description: Maddy is standing in front of a white background, she has short white-blonde hair and a fringe. She is wearing a sleeveless, collared, buttoned orange-brown blouse.