This blog is based on Noni Vaughn-Pollard’s (she/her) webinar, Perfectionism and the Modern Woman, which she presented to the EDRD Pro community in March 2022.
Written by Kristen Nyampong and edited by Greta Jarvis
Perfectionism is a trait that many women with eating disorders share. The desire to be “perfect” manifests through holding oneself to immensely high standards and feeling like a failure or disappointment when those ideals are inevitably not met. Simply put, this toxic cycle is a form of internalized misogyny and racism. Women – especially women of color – are implicitly and explicitly expected to adhere to impossible societal standards, while discouraged from exploring their own sense of self.
Noni Vaughn-Pollard (she/her), a Registered Nutritionist and Mental Health Counselor based in New York, works alongside clients healing from perfectionism and eating disorders. After suffering from many health issues herself, Noni identified perfectionism and anxiety as root causes while training to become a mental health counselor. Working to identify, deconstruct, and release these rigid standards of perfectionism allowed her to heal both mentally and physically.
Noni emphasizes that perfectionism is not a mental health disorder; instead, it shows up as a personality trait – one that is extremely common among her clients with eating disorders. The need to set such unrealistic expectations makes clients lack compassion toward themselves. Perfectionists, in other words, “don’t believe in unconditional love, expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance.”
Perfectionism, however, is not one-size-fits-all. Here are the three types of perfectionists that Noni highlighted in her webinar:
- Self-oriented types set high expectations for themselves. This is common among women with eating disorders.
- Other-oriented types set high expectations for others and are highly judgemental if the people around them do not attain such standards.
- Socially-prescribed types suffer from not meeting societal standards.
In Noni’s practice, she uses Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (RO-DBT) as a tool to treat women experiencing both eating disorders and perfectionism. This healing modality is often used for clients who do not have strong emotional regulation and who tend to overcontrol, helping them release rigid behavior as well as increase socialization since eating disorders thrive in secrecy.
RO-DBT also supports clients in recognizing social signaling, “any action or behavior, regardless of form, intent, or the performer’s awareness, that is carried out in the presence of another person.” This allows them to consistently show up safely for themselves, their relationships, and the world.
Discovering one’s sense of self is another important component for women with perfectionist tendencies in eating disorder recovery. This is helpful for pushing back on cognitive distortions, an overestimation of the self that oftentimes results in black-and-white thinking. A strong sense of self is especially important for Women of Color, as white supremacy forces them to constantly subscribe to heteronormative white standards.
Women with perfectionist tendencies often feel social pressures, as they navigate an oppressive patriarchal society, so, as clinicians, exercising patience and compassion is key. Your work with these clients is powerful, walking alongside them as they discover a healthy relationship with themselves to not only decrease their eating disorder behaviors but, most importantly, allow them to show up safely, authentically, and beautifully imperfect in the world.