Do you define yourself as a perfectionist? Having idyllic aspirations – whether it’s never making a mistake at work, being a fairytale relationship, or maintaining a spotless home – is generally viewed as a good thing.

But there’s a fine line between working hard to achieve realistic goals and pushing yourself to never make a mistake. One of them is achievable. The other isn’t. Bottom line: perfection isn’t possible.

If you’ve ever felt the pressure of perfection around the food you eat, the amount of exercise you do, or what you see in the mirror, you’re hardly alone. Perfectionism and body image go hand in hand.

Diet culture and the media are quick to tell us how we should look and what we should eat. It’s easy to internalize these messages and feel like we’re somehow not good enough and need to do better.

Trying to achieve something that isn’t real or sustainable significantly impacts your mental health and your happiness. Constantly striving to be perfect will leave you feeling stressed out, sad, and alone. That leads to anxiety, depression, and physical ailments like headaches, body tension, and digestive distress.

Besides being unrealistic, perfection around food and exercise are usually overly restrictive. It prevents us from having fun and enjoying life. It fosters unhealthy relationships between us, our bodies, and food. And, it creates a lot of anxiety. Simply put, perfectionism has no place at the table.

Learning how to let go of perfectionism takes work and it doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s a worthwhile cause because when you stop trying to be perfect, you open yourself up to living life with more enjoyment and satisfaction.

If perfectionism has crept into your food and lifestyle choices, here are some ways to help you shift your perspective.

Identify healthy thought patterns

The first step to correcting thoughts that aren’t serving you is to notice them. Often, when we’re trying to “eat perfectly” or reach the “perfect weight”, our perfectionism is driven by negative self-talk and criticism.

Start by working on your awareness of your self-talk by:

  • Catch the thought in action
  • Check-in with yourself
    • What evidence supports the thought?
    • What is all of the evidence that doesn’t support the negative thought?
  • Repeat as necessary

It may take a lot of practice, but you can change unhelpful thought patterns over time. Letting go of perfectionism and the anxiety that comes with it won’t happen overnight but it is possible.

If you have no idea how to redirect your self-talk, start by thinking about how you’d speak to a friend who was being hard on themselves. Chances are you’d choose to be encouraging, kind, and forgiving. Try to use the same tone with yourself.

Practice self-compassion

No one is perfect. We’re human; it’s impossible to be.

You’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough.

If you’re struggling to accept these messages or don’t know what a realistic goal would be, imagine what you would say to a child.

If she was upset because someone had said something mean to her, would you tell her she needs to do better next time so there won’t be anything people could be critical of?

Or would you tell her that sometimes people are mean but it doesn’t mean that what they said was true? And that even it was true, that one singular thing doesn’t define who she is?

Stop labeling foods

It’s impossible – and unnecessary – to eat perfectly. The truth is there’s room for all foods in a balanced diet.

Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” doesn’t help us be healthier, but it does give what we eat the power to control how we feel.

Whenever you catch yourself labeling a food good/bad or right/wrong, stop and replace that thought with a mantra such as:

  • Food is fuel
  • Food is nourishing
  • It’s ok for food to be enjoyable
  • All foods fit
  • All bodies are good bodies

Pay attention to your body’s cues

When you’re focused on trying to eat or exercise perfectly, you’re not in touch with your body’s wants and needs. Learning how your body communicates hunger, fullness, and energy levels helps you eat in a naturally balanced way.

Note how your body feels after a particular meal or workout. Feeling positive, energized, peaceful, happy, and satisfied are clues your body’s needs are being met.

If you feel agitated, anxious, or exhausted, your food and exercise choices might need some reconsideration.

Practice intuitive eating

When you eat intuitively, you listen to your body and feed it accordingly. You recognize your body’s hunger fluctuates naturally from day to day. You trust that your body knows how much it needs.

Look at babies – they’re great at intuitive eating. When they’re hungry you’ll hear about it until they’re fed. And when they’re full, there’s no getting another spoonful of puréed peas in their mouths.

Somehow, we wander away from this trust of our bodies as we get older. We try to control our appetites with our heads instead or ignore hunger and satiety cues all together. Those methods never work as well as listening to our guts.

Intuitive eating also means giving yourself permission to enjoy your favorite foods. Recognize that single foods or meals don’t make or break health goals.

When you eat a previously “forbidden” food, you don’t need to restrict food intake or exercise more to make up for it. If you choose to eat a certain food, enjoy it and move on until your body tells you it’s time to eat again.

Embrace mistakes

Perfection requires you to avoid failure. A more realistic approach is to realize everyone has weaknesses and makes mistakes. And, honestly, those are the times you learn the most.

Treat your missteps as learning opportunities. Continue to practice self-compassion. You’re going for progress, not perfection.

Letting go of anxiety and perfectionism is hard but you can do it.

Connect with gratitude and joy

Our brains are like magnets for bad things. It’s what kept us alive as cavemen. We needed to remember which creatures could eat us and be able to dodge them in the future.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for good things. Those seem to effortlessly roll off our brains.

And you can imagine what happens when our brain is only picking up on bad, never good. It’s an unhappy place to be.

But it’s fixable! To do so, you have to consciously focus on the good things. It’s as simple as appreciating nice weather or savoring a good meal. Writing it down seems to help cement it.

Notice every time the smell of coffee fills your house in the morning. Or how the sparkling bubbles of champagne tickle your nose as you sip on it, celebrating a recent achievement. Or what it’s like to visit your family, get a warm hug, and enjoy that dish only your mom can make right.

The bottom line

Focusing on perfection takes you out of the present moment and leaves less room for happiness. You can increase joy by being compassionate towards yourself and your body’s needs.

By seeing food as simply fuel, and not something that has power over you, you can release the perfectionism around it.