Overcoming Perfectionism for Long-Term Weight Loss

I’m not a coffee drinker but my wife loves the stuff. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but until today, I’ve never made her a cup of joe. During our 14 years of marriage, I have purchased coffee for her—see, I’m not a terrible husband (please believe me). This morning when I attempted to brew up an act of kindness, I realized one thing that has been holding me back all of these years—my perfectionistic thoughts. I wanted to make it just right, but my skills were lacking. Pour the water here and it makes how many servings? Do these numbers on the pot represent 8-ounce cups? A level scoop or a heaping scoop? Wait, will this be too weak--I think she puts more grounds in the filter and… how did I ever get my Ph.D.?

When it comes to weight management, are you like me and my quest to make my wife the perfect cup of coffee? Are you at times stifled by an all-or-nothing perfectionistic attitude? Do you get stressed out when you can’t figure out the exact calories, carbohydrates or protein in a food you've prepared? Or, when you are on a diet does it occupy so much of your time that all of the other important parts of your life suffer? If this sounds like you, you have most likely had short-term success losing weight. You may be disciplined, long for highly structured plans, and get on quite a roll when you set your mind to something. But eventually you wear down and give up on the overzealous plan.

Striving for excellence is generally a desirable quality and there are times when being precise is important—think eye surgery, space shuttle engineering, and vasectomies. But when our health behaviors are like a light switch (all on or off) our weight is likely to frustratingly cycle up and down. We never learn to live in the gray of eating mostly healthy foods. We may avoid exercise altogether when we can’t get to the gym for both cardio and strength training. So, if your perfectionistic dieting is getting in the way of sustainable success, here are a few things to consider:

Redefine Perfect

Rather than try to change peoples’ personalities who are highly conscientious and tend to fall into perfectionistic patterns, I often ask them to go with the flow of their perfectionism. Just like the perfect baseball swing isn’t the most powerful swing you can muster, “perfect” eating need not be all or nothing either. Reset your sights on practicing flexibility and successfully implementing planned deviations. “Perfect” may be a slice of pizza and a large salad rather than no pizza at all. When you are short on time, “ideal” is resisting the urge to skip your typical hour-long workout and simply make time for a 20 minute walk.

Dimmer Switch Dieting

Rather than being all-in or out of control when it comes to eating, commit to a way of life. The commitment is like a dimmer light switch that you always leave on. Even though you may make adjustments to your intensity at times, never turn the switch off. Commitment means always being aware of what you are trying to accomplish and reminding yourself why those things are important. Always leave enough light on to be aware of your patterns and to see the adjustments you might need to make.

Face your Fears

A therapist once told me of an effective way she treated a people-pleasing anxious client of hers. Her homework was to go through a fast food drive-through and intentionally miss the cashier’s hand when paying for her food. What the client thought would be a disastrous embarrassment actually ended up being a funny memory. When we face our fears with the intention of overcoming them, we can begin to see the world and ourselves differently. If your fear is snowballing out of control if you eat a tempting food, make a plan to practice eating that food in moderation. From a psychological perspective, an intentional sampling of a food is much different than believing you broke a dieting rule with your first bite.

Take Health Seriously…But Laugh at Yourself

We all have quirks—I avoid foods with garlic and onions like they are flesh-eating bacteria. As you continue in your weight management journey and try to become better at it, stop beating yourself up. Laugh as you learn. Chuckle as you change.

By the way, the coffee I made for my wife wasn't nearly strong enough. We laughed as she added some instant coffee to the pot I brewed. But I scored big points in the husband category and tomorrow the coffee will be much improved.