Are you a perfectionist?
Perfectionism is common in individuals with eating disorders. It is not a necessarily a negative – striving for high standards can be a strength, but there is a fine line between healthy pursuit of excellence and unhealthy perfectionism. The University of Exeter has some great resources about this: www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/resources/online-resources/perfectionism/ - you are likely to find that your university does too! They may even run courses for managing perfectionism.
You may find at university that you get limited feedback on your work – this makes it hard to know, with much confidence, how well you did. The truth is, for many subjects, there won’t be a perfect answer or a perfect essay.
The 80/20 rule of time management is something that we could probably all learn from. Simply put, the rule states that the relationship between input and output is rarely, if ever, balanced. If it takes you a given amount of time, let us say two hours, to complete an essay so that it is “good enough,” it is likely to take you the same time again, say another two hours, to improve the essay by just 10%. In all, to get a piece of work from 80%, “good enough,” to 100% “perfect” takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Much more time and energy than it took to get the essay to 80% perfect in the first place. It is worth recognising that it is enormously costly to go that extra distance.
Eating disorders are often associated with a tendency to track the behaviours of others and aspire to out-do them. This competitiveness can also manifest in a feeling that you need to have done more to stay on the same playing field as others. Self-doubt and low self-esteem can lead individuals to feel that they are not as good or capable as other people and must work harder and put more effort in than others to simply be as good as them. This is often an unrealistic assessment of their own abilities.
Being flexible: challenging a rigid mind-set
Eating disorder behaviours are often used to build a sense of control. They facilitate a sense of being in control of life. People tend to transfer the control they may wish to have in other areas of their life to controlling food.
This sense isn’t far removed from everyday life we all experience. Don’t we all like to feel in control? To feel that life is manageable? The more unmanageable life seems, the more likely we are to clasp to specific aspects of life that we can control. Using an eating disorder to feel in control however comes at a huge cost – it narrows life choices.
That bulimia narrows life choices is one of its benefits for some individuals. Life feels more in control when what you do and where you are willing to go has been contained. For example, Anna claimed that her bulimia had stopped her from going to work and looking for a boyfriend. But in actual fact it had protected her from having to make a painful decision about whether to leave home or stay to care for her disabled mother.
The "South Indian Monkey Trap" was developed by villagers to catch the numerous small monkeys in that part of the world. It involves a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be seen through a small hole. The hole is just big enough so that the monkey can put his hand in, but too small for his fist to come out after he grabbed the rice. The monkey becomes trapped but it is his own fist that traps him. He rigidly holds on to the rice. We get stuck the same way. We fail to see that the trap we've become ensnared by is of our own doing. Ask yourself what you're rigidly hanging onto. Let go of your grip!
Seeing the Wood for the Trees
Eating disorders may be associated with a deficit in problem solving ability. This can make it hard to respond flexibly to problems. Cognitive distortions, similar to those associated with autism, have been identified in individuals with eating disorders. In particular, eating disorders are associated with Weak Central Coherence, which refers to a tendency to see parts instead of the whole, focussing on fragments of detail rather than the bigger picture. This may colloquially be referred to as ‘not seeing the woods for the trees’.
Focusing on the details can be helpful at times, it is certainly useful for proof reading and accountancy, but a focus on detail can also make it hard to interpret an event in context. Under high levels of stress, we all narrow our focus to specific details, seeing fragments but failing to process them in context. This rarely helps us make good decisions.
In the Student Minds office we love an article written in Forbes – “The Art of Satisficing”
You can also find more information about courses and resources to start developing mindfulness skills at http://bemindful.co.uk/