I was talking to my friend Lesley the other day about the dangers of trying to be perfect in any aspect of life. Perfectionism is a topic I know a lot about. For decades I ran myself ragged trying to be a perfect wife, mother, health care professional. It nearly destroyed my health!
It’s so hard to remember that perfection is an illusion, especially when it comes to health. Every time we pick up a magazine there’s a headline touting the rules for good health. We hear them on the evening news, as we scroll through social media, and even from our friends.
Don’t eat ANY fat (or sugar, or gluten, or…). Exercise for an hour (at least) every single day, in the morning if at all possible. Banish all processed foods. Eat berries – but forget it if they aren’t organic. You need protein for energy, but meat isn’t okay unless it’s grass-fed, and fish has to be wild caught. Sleep for eight hours and have a strict bedtime routine, no exceptions. Throw out your beauty products – they’re toxic! Don’t use non-stick cookware.
The list is endless – and completely unrealistic! There’s just no way anyone can do all that, and work, and raise a family, and keep their mental health!
I started shifting my thinking and recommending the 80/20 rule long ago, when I realized I was actually hurting my health trying to follow all those rules. What’s the 80/20 rule? It’s the idea that if you are following the guidelines 80% of the time, you can be a little flexible with the other 20%.
I’ve read a lot of great material about perfectionism and health over the past decade or so, starting with a book by Dr. Susan Love, MD, and Alice D. Domar, PhD, called Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health. This book reminded me that perfection is an illusion, and being “pretty healthy” is much more fun!
I loved the realistic approach these women took in six key areas of health: sleep, stress management, health screenings, exercise, nutrition, and personal relationships. They offered real-life tips, helpful quizzes, and a nice dose of humor as they talked about the “PBW” (perfectly balanced woman) and self-righteous exercisers.
Although they debunk some research studies, they caution us not to give up on science. But they also give us permission to trust ourselves – and this lines up quite nicely with something I have long been saying to the women around me: We are all unique individuals and what works for one might not work well for another. Not only that, but we simply can’t trust the media to reflect what is truly healthy.
Love and Domar emphasize the power that I am constantly reminding women is theirs for the taking! They write, “You have probably been on this earth for somewhere between twenty and ninety years, and you have this nutrition stuff down cold. You know about fruits and vegetables … and quality meats in reasonable portions. You know that you should put a variety of colors on your plate… and that you should shop around the edges of the grocery store, where the freshest food is stored … You know that on some days you will eat too much junk food out of stress or fatigue or sheer love of raspberry-flavored Fig Newtons. You even know that there will be whole weeks out of your life when the going is really, truly rough…where you will survive solely on pizzas washed down with premium ice cream. And that is okay. You will weather these storms and you will go back to your routine of eating wholesome foods in moderation.”
Isn’t that a powerful reminder? YOU are the expert on your own body. YOU are the expert on what you need to maintain not only physical, but good mental health. YOU are intelligent enough to analyze the information out there and determine what works well in your life.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve done plenty more reading since that book was published – and it all reinforces exactly what Love and Domar said. Perfection is impossible, and striving for it can result in poor mental health and very little joy. Striving for perfection can be quite dangerous – especially when it comes to food. Trying to follow all of those rules simultaneously can result in a host of health problems, including eating disorders.
Instead, remember my 80/20 rule, and choose your indulgences wisely. Allow yourself to enjoy it without an ounce of guilt! And remember that nothing is perfect, but you are most definitely good enough!
Reference: Love, Susan M. and Alice D. Domar. 2009. Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health. New York, NY: Crown.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD