Anna Wootton

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Give Up Perfection to Give Up Emotional Eating

When I tell clients to throw out their scales and every diet book they own, I see the panic and fear in their eyes. It’s so hard to let go of structure and promises, even if that structure is all pain and no gain, and the promises are hollow and unfulfilled. Diet plans promise so much: anywhere from the moderate and at least achievable ‘lose a pound a week’ to ‘eliminate all gluten’ or ‘follow the low-glycemic index diet’. As restrictive as each plan sounds, there’s always someone there to sing its praises, someone for whom it worked.

Honestly, I’m going to let you in on a secret: it didn’t work for them. No, I’m not saying they’re lying. I’m just saying that it’s not the eating a grapefruit a day that worked for them – it’s the fact that they began paying attention to their health, to their movement, to their diet, and this awareness manifests itself in a lifestyle change for them. This is great but, for the vast majority of people I work with, it’s not relevant and they would not see the same results if they did this diet. Why not?

Because my clients are women who have ample amounts of knowledge of what they should and should not put in their bodies. They know what’s healthy, and that they should move their bodies daily and that they should forgo the McDonald’s drive-thru. Their problem is not in knowledge – actually, the problem is that they have too much knowledge and use it to beat themselves up every time they do something that doesn’t fall in line with what they know they SHOULD be doing.

Their problem is that the emotional is not in line with the rational. Knowing what you should be putting in your body is a rational process. Everyone knows that to be healthy we should eat less meat, more vegetables, drink more water, move more, sleep more, meditate more, relax more. But if it was as simple as knowing what we should do then we’d all live perfect lives in every regard, right?

Emotions get in the way and – yes – eating unhealthy comfort foods can come from a need for excitement, distraction, a relief from stress, upset and distress. But sometimes it can be down to restriction. We know what we need to be doing and we have this ‘teacher’s pet’ mentality where we want to be perfect and excel at everything we do, so we try our best to follow every guideline under the sun.

But then we get an attack of stress or loneliness and we get frustrated because that pretty and healthy fruit platter we cut up that’s waiting for us in the fridge just isn’t going to cut it. So we ‘cave’ or ‘give in’ and have some chocolate and before you know it we’ve started saying to ourselves: “Screw it, let’s just go all out!” and then we’re sitting on the kitchen floor with empty boxes of cookies all around. This mentality clearly does NOT work. What does work then?

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Accepting that being a star pupil is actually about balance – yes, balance, that ubiquitous and scary and annoying word. Think about it: even the best students don’t go to school 24 hours a day. No, they go 8 hours a day 5 days a week at most. Maybe a couple of extra hours in extra-curricular studies after school. So try implementing this idea with your eating. If you LOVE structure then maybe start out by eating well Monday to Friday and letting yourself have more treats on the weekend. But to be honest, the best plan of all is to have NO plan, and to get rid of structure altogether. Here’s what I want you to do:

Try eating WHAT you want WHEN you want it. Share it!

I know, shocking advice. You’ve probably not done this for the longest time. Try it for just 2 weeks – I promise you can’t gain that much weight in that time, so just give it a go.

At first you may find yourself going overboard on the junk food because that’s what you’ve stopped yourself from having for so long that your brain just goes: “Yay, freedom!” and goes insane, like a kid let loose in Disneyland for the first time. That is because your brain is dictating what you want and when you want it. But just like that kid in the theme park, eventually you’ll run out of steam and even the most delicious junk food – just like the most fun rides at Disney – will lose their appeal in favour of energy and nutrition. Eventually your brain will get tired of controlling the cravings and your nutrient-starved and sluggish body will step up and start crying out for healthy, nourishing foods instead. Eventually things will even themselves out. Honestly.

The best life, to me, is one where you are full of energy from fuelling yourself with healthy and tasty foods, yet you still love nothing more than to sit down with a girlfriend to a cup of tea and a pain au chocolat on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Or where you go to a birthday party and really look forward to savouring that slice of birthday cake because you know it won’t set you off on a sugar rampage. And who knows, you might even say no to that birthday cake because it’s not your favourite flavour, and you know you can go and get a slice of your favourite type of cake any day of the week if you want to, so why would you settle for less?

If that sounds like an unachievable life, it’s not – it’s one that I help clients get to all the time with my coaching services (for more on those, click here). It’s just called balance, my friends. And guess what? That balance that we all feel is so unachievable is a LOT easier to get than the perfectionism that the teacher’s pet in us is always striving for.

FUN Work for You to Consider:

  • Have you got a pattern of perfectionism? 
  • Brainstorm 3 ways – or areas of your life – in which you can accept average instead of perfect.