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Eating Perfectionism

by jenny sansouci on January 17, 2012

Let me tell you a little story.

About 4 years ago, I was an “anything goes” type of eater. Didn’t care what was in my food, didn’t think about ingredients or what the food was doing to my body – just ate whatever tasted the best. The only times I ever thought about what I was eating was if I was trying to go on a diet before spring break or some other event, and I’d just try whatever fad diet seemed cool at the time…which usually involved eating nothing but grapefruits and egg whites for a week. After the diet was over, I was always back to pizza and nachos without a second thought. Sound familiar? 🙂

On New Year’s Day 2008, at brunch, one of my friends said, “Do you want to go vegan for 30 days with me?”

“Um…nope,” I said, laughing, as I took another bite of my ham and cheese omelet.

She told me to read some book called “Skinny Bitch” and then decide. Sigh. Well, it was the beginning of a new year, which meant typical time to diet again….so of course, with a title like that, I agreed to read the book.

I read it, and it was the first time I had ever read anything about what’s really in my food, or how it affects my health. I felt like my eyes were pried open – and I needed to jump on the vegan bandwagon, like, immediately. So I did. From the day I cracked open the book, and for 6 straight months, I wouldn’t TOUCH an animal product, let alone a freaking ham and cheese omelet (the horror!). I was extremely strict about it. Preachy too. Since I didn’t know much about real nutrition at that point, I was eating a lot of soy “meats” and fake cheese – just as long as I was 100% vegan, all was right with the world and I was eating the “right” way. I had tons of cravings that I ignored. I didn’t care, I was a VEGAN! If I felt unsatisfied or had low energy, I just filled up on more hummus and tofutti ice cream sandwiches. I wasn’t listening to my body. I was listening to my perfectionist mind.

Fast forward to the 4th of July. I was up in Cape Cod at a friend’s house and I was going out of my way to be a strict vegan while I was there, even though it was beginning to feel exhausting. My friend made this beautiful 4th of July cake – it was her annual tradition and she said it was her favorite cake in the world. I cracked. I decided to have one small bite of it.

So I did. I broke the seal. I had a bite of cake. And another. And then a whole piece. And then later, I had a turkey & cheese sandwich. And more cake. And probably some bacon. On the way home from the Cape, I got McDonald’s chicken nuggets at the bus station. No doubt about it. I had fully, shamefully relapsed, and I felt horrible about myself. I was a failure!

So what’s my point? This is not about veganism (I think veganism is totally fantastic when done in a healthy way…i.e. not guzzling soy milk and tofu dogs).

My point is this: So many of us fall into “eating perfectionism” – the mind trap of wanting to be perfect that takes us completely out of tune with our own intuition and our bodies. We beat ourselves up if we’re not eating in what we believe to be the most “perfect way.” Can you relate?

So let me break a few things down.

  • Obviously, I’m not against trying out strict ways of eating – I think it’s great to omit certain things from your diet to see how you feel. It can change your life when you realize how great you feel without a certain food.
  • Sometimes, an intense eating regimen is necessary (and awesome!) for cleansing, healing and thriving. You know I’m all about that.
  • There is, however, a complete difference between embarking on a new eating plan to do research on yourself and get healthier VS. continuing to eat a certain way just because you think that one way is “the only right way”, regardless of how your body feels.
  • See the difference? The issue is not in the way we’re eating. The issue is in the way we’re THINKING. MILITANT vs. curious and experimental. Curious and experimental is so much more fun.

Bottom line: Perfectionist eating BLOCKS intuitive eating.

I’m writing this post because I still struggle with eating perfectionism…but I’ve gotten so much better at noticing the difference. Especially after studying at IIN – I learned how to listen to my own body.

A recent example of intuitive eating: On my 10-Day juice cleanse, my perfectionist mind wanted to drink nothing but juice the whole time…but I was having trouble falling asleep because I was really hungry. My perfectionist mind would have said “don’t fail!” My intuition said to add some almond milk to the cleanse. I listened. I felt better. I slept better. The world didn’t end.

One of the issues with that vegan story is that I wasn’t gentle with the transition. I went 100% from the second I made the decision without giving myself any wiggle room. I didn’t give myself permission to say “it’s ok” if I wasn’t perfect every second. That’s a self-imposed dungeon.

If you relate to this, here are a few tips that work for me, to get myself more on the side of intuition:

  • Figure out why you’re choosing this way of eating. Because you think it’s “the right way” to eat? Have you taken the time to slow down and figure out if it’s actually working for you? Do you feel good?
  • Decide that you’re going to listen to how your body feels when you embark on new ways of eating, and if it doesn’t feel good, give yourself permission to change it.
  • Think of all new ways of eating as “research” rather than a strict sentence.
  • Give yourself transition time and wiggle room. Even if you passionately want to remove sugar or dairy from your diet, don’t flip out on yourself if you have it once in awhile. In fact, sometimes having a little bit of the “forbidden foods” will just remind you of why you don’t want to eat them. I feel that way about sugar. I don’t eat it most of the time, and when I do have some, it makes me feel so crappy that I’m like “Great! Nice research. I don’t feel good on sugar. Good reminder.”
  • Whatever way you choose to eat, make sure it’s pleasurable!! Life is about enjoying yourself. Food included. There are so many ways to eat a clean diet that is full of pleasure and bliss. Find what works for you. Don’t torture yourself.
  • Only follow a set of “food rules” if it makes sense to you – intellectually, physically, intuitively. If your first thought is “I would be miserable eating that way!” that’s probably not your best bet right now.
  • If you’re giving up something, and you’re totally committed, great! Just make sure that commitment makes you feel excited and thrilled, not oppressed and chained down. A good commitment should feel like freedom. Whenever I go on a cleanse or try a new eating plan, I check myself. Am I excited about this or does it feel forced? If I’m not excited, I chuck the idea.

I’d love to hear how you guys feel about eating perfectionism. How does it show up in your life? Any good tips for cutting yourself some mental slack? 🙂


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Kim Augsburger January 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I couldn’t have said it any better!!! I always have a “plan” of what I want to accomplish, what I want to be eating, but I realize there will be moments where I feel that my body needs something else, and that’s totally OK. I too like to think of it as “doing research” on myself. Ya gotta experiment and find what works for you!

jenny sansouci January 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Agreed, Kim! Experimentation feels so much nicer than strict rules.

Cristi Nicholson January 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Hi Jenny. I want to be just like you when I grow up! I am also a student at IIN and love your website and your style. Are you an IIN mentor? If so, can you be my IIN health coach?!!! Your style and marketing is spot on and I would love to have some coaching on how to develop the plan you did to get it all done! Warmest Regards, Cristi Nicholson

jenny sansouci January 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Hi Cristi! I’m not an official IIN student mentor, but send me an email.

Mercedes Turino January 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm

I love this post, it brings up an issue that I think needs to be discussed moer often. Following rigid, dogmatic food rules in order to fit into a “label” doesn’t lead to better health. Thanks for brigning it up and out into the open!

jenny sansouci January 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Thanks, Mercedes! I agree. I’ve found that no matter how much I learn about nutrition, those perfectionist tendencies still come up!

Erin Paup January 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I love the line “A good commitment should feel like freedom.” I’m going to keep and use that one. 😉

jenny sansouci January 20, 2012 at 10:13 am

Yes! Commitments shouldn’t feel like jail.

Angie January 18, 2012 at 12:03 am

Jenny always say just the right thing…just when I need to hear it. Thank you.

jenny sansouci January 20, 2012 at 10:13 am

You’re welcome, Angie! As always! xo

Ali @ whatalididnext January 18, 2012 at 3:37 am

Hey Jenny – what an awesome post. As a complete perfectionist it really resonated with me. I am on a journey I guess you would say to a vegan diet, and I do try really hard to not beat myself up if I slip, and also see it as a transition.I completely agree that you really need to listen to your body, and definately not feel oppressed, and also make sure you are really clear to yourself why you are doing what you are doing.
I read on twitter the other day that “Labels are for tin cans”. Love it.

jenny sansouci January 20, 2012 at 10:15 am

Ali, I relate! And I love that labels quote. So true. I think using intellectual ideas about nutrition can be fantastic when combined with real body awareness. Thanks for reading!

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