Perfectionism and procrastination

Posted 29/08/2017

For many years, I considered myself to be a “recovering anorexic”. I attended my weekly therapy sessions with completed food diaries in hand. I listened to my therapist’s promises of the richness of life without anorexia. As a medical student, I was fully aware of what nutrients the human body needs to function, and the physical consequences of an eating disorder. I’d been diagnosed with osteoporosis and knew that if I gained weight I could still restore my bone density.

Despite all this, I wasn’t really recovering. I was lying to myself and everyone else. While I could see that lots of people without anorexia did lead rich, full lives, I knew I wasn’t like them. Spontaneous meals out and lazy duvet days were meant for other people. Even when my bones began to break and my once thick curly hair began to fall out, I wasn’t ready to start feeding my body. For now I’d stay like this: broken but skinny.

Meanwhile, doors began to close around me. A toxic combination of low weight and low self-esteem meant I couldn’t continue my training to be a doctor. The once high-achieving girl who enjoyed socialising, volunteering and yoga now lived by lists, rules and rigid routines. My ambitions flickered out and I was left with feelings of shame, regret and anger. It seemed all of my friends were happier and more successful than I. The more I told myself I was a failure, the more I sought comfort in my eating disorder: if I could just lose a bit more weight then I’d be happy.

So why did I carry on despite knowing what anorexia was doing to my mind, my body and my life?

I was procrastinating. Everyone does it: five more minutes in bed, one more hour of Netflix before starting an essay … I was waiting for my life to magically get better before got better. I told myself I’d start eating more when I had a prestigious career like my university friends. I’d stop hating myself when I had hobbies I was good at like my musical or sporty friends. I’d relax when I wasn’t a failure any more. Time and time again I’d try to achieve these goals while still depriving my body of food and my mind of self-compassion. And every time I didn’t succeed because I was too anxious and too ill, I felt more furious with myself and sought comfort in my anorexia. It was a vicious cycle that got more painful and exhausting as time passed by.

It took some years (and the help of a truly fantastic therapist) but eventually I realised I was waiting for a miracle that wasn’t going to come. The most difficult step in my recovery was accepting that my life would simply not move on until I broke free from my eating disorder and gave myself time to heal. If anorexia has taught me anything, it’s that living your life in the pursuit of perfection and arbitrary goals is not really living. Life isn’t meant to be perfect and it certainly doesn’t follow a rule book.

Comparing your body, your clothes or your job with other people’s is meaningless. After all, you’ve come along completely different paths. If you ran a marathon without any shoes on you certainly wouldn’t win, so don’t punish yourself if you’ve had setbacks because of an eating disorder. That said, life isn’t a race. Anorexia will promise happiness when you reach your ‘ideal’ weight, but if you do the reward will be brief and soon replaced by another target. The same is true for life after an eating disorder. It’s good to have ambitions and things to look forward to, but life is what happens while we’re working towards our goals.

Recovery is full of ups and downs. You’re not a failure if you struggle or if it takes longer than you want it to, but if you’re willing to fight back against your eating disorder your life really will open up. You’ll have the energy to do more, the flexibility to start living outside your rules, and the space in your mind to replace self-depreciation with kindness. Don’t wait until your life is perfect to start enjoying it; you deserve it now. 

Contributed by Joanne