Mar 222013
"To eat or not to eat," Photo by daniellehelm.  From the Flickr Creative Commons.

“To eat or not to eat,” Photo by daniellehelm. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Deep into my dieting experiment, counting calories obsessively, exercising, etc. I can’t help but wonder how this is different from having an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. According to Portia De Rossi’s book Unbearable Lightness, a memoir about her struggles with anorexia, there isn’t.

“[D]ieting . . . was another form of disordered eating. . . ‘Ordered’ eating is the practice of eating when you are hungry and ceasing to eat when your brain sends the signal that your stomach is full.”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

Today, we see people obsessing about food all the time. If it isn’t calories, then it’s fat, sugar, gluten, carbs or labels like organic or vegan. It’s hard to feel comfortable and confident in your food choices. There is someone out there to judge you no matter what you choose to eat.

How do you know when your dieting has crossed the line into anorexia?

When you read Portia de Rossi’s autobiography, it is very clear that her anorexic eating patterns are not normal.

Some of the signs:

  • Needing specific bowls or eating utensils to eat her food
  • Eating exactly the same thing in exactly the same amounts
  • Worrying about how many calories ate in an unplanned snack and immediately exercising to lose them
  • Eating normally to be social then throwing up right after
  • Lies to her nutritionist and others about what she is eating (or not eating)

Take, for example this fictional magazine interview response she says is the honest response to questions about her then diet and exercise routine.

SHAPE: “Portia, tell us how you stay in shape?”

PORTIA: “I eat three hundred calories a day for as many days as I can before a photo shoot. The rest of the time I binge and purge.”

SHAPE: “What’s your favorite workout?”

PORTIA: “I’m afraid to work out at all because I’m worried that muscle definition makes people look bigger. I hate the look of fit, muscular women. I prefer the long, waiflike look of models who are most likely just as sick as I am.”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

What causes someone to become anorexic?

There are certainly many causes but in Portia De Rossi’s case, she describes it this way:

“Average. It was the worst, most disgusting word in the English language. Nothing meaningful or worthwhile came from that word. . . . What kind of boring, uninspired life was I going to live if I was thought of as ‘average’ in any category?”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

A large part of her desire to be thin was to solidify her uniqueness in life, to show the world how she was a special, unattainable ideal that no one could ever copy. Add in a dose of perfectionism, a serious competitive streak, a high-pressure industry focused on appearance, and a conflicted sense of self coming to terms with her homosexuality and anorexia is almost an unsurprising result.

What was her path out of anorexia?

There were many factors that helped Portia De Rossi recover from anorexia. Accepting herself as a lesbian and finding solid relationships (like her current marriage to Ellen DeGeneres) was a big part; realizing the medical harm she had done to her body by being so thin (down to 82 pounds at one point) was another; but there were two other factors that helped her control her obsessive dieting and exercise tendencies.

Her realization about eating what you want certainly rang true for me. Until this month, I have almost never censored what I eat.

“[L]iving without dieting sounded like a utopian philosophical ideal. That is, until I witnessed it at work with Francesca. A naturally thin woman who ate whatever she wanted and never gained or lost a pound was the most fascinating case study for [me] who had spent her life gaining and losing weight. I watched her eat pasta, candy, ice cream and cheese. I watched her dip her bread in olive oil and wash it down with Coke – real Coke, not diet—while I ate dry salads with no dressing and sipped iced tea. I was dumbfounded that I was eating boring, dry, diet food and maintaining or gaining weight during the course of any given month when she never even thought about what she ate or how her body looked. I was equally amazed as I watched her order food at restaurants and only eat a small portion of her order because she was too full to finish it or skip breakfast or lunch because she got a little too busy and simply forgot to eat. After initially dismissing her eating habits as a result of her just being one of those lucky people who can eat whatever they want and stay thin, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe people who stay thin are the people who eat whatever they want.”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness (emphasis added)

I worry about some parents who control every bite that goes into their children’s mouths fearful about weight gain or sugar-dependency. We have to be careful about encouraging health without making children become anxious about eating and laying the groundwork for eating disorders.

Her realization about exercise is something I had never thought of before but which makes a whole lot of sense. We tend to overemphasize that the reason we need to exercise is to stay thin. Portia De Rossi learned to see it another way:

“Another way for me to stay fit is to do activities where I can learn a skill, like horse riding or tennis or dancing. I find that if I can concentrate on getting better at something, rather than getting fitter or looking better, I accomplish all three things…”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

2013-03-222-unbearablelightness Unbearable Lightness is a fascinating read, especially if you like Hollywood gossip. It took a huge amount of courage to write and has lessons for us all about the right and wrong ways to encourage healthy eating and exercise patterns.

Have you struggled with eating disorders? How do you respond to the above insight on diet and exercise? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on March 22, 2013 General Tagged with: , ,
Apr 182012

Our fairy ring of daffodils in bloom.

We had a beautiful ring of daffodils around our front tree this year. I can’t take credit for it. The previous owners put this in and it comes back year after year, thrilling my daughters with its blooms.

After the blooming, however, the greenery starts to get a little tired. It may also serve as a “nest” for deer who seem to like to lie in it and munch on my daylilies.

Daffodil leaves . . . post bloom and post-deer.

Looking at this mess of leaves, I remembered my post on the perfectionist gardener and the concept of braiding the leaves came into my head. I didn’t think I would ever become one of “those” gardeners. While individual small braids was out of the time commitment question, I went for a huge braid of the entire nest. It’s a bit sloppy but hey, aren’t messy braids the latest fashion trend?

The braided daffodil foliage.

Just a bit of fun . . . and it made it easier to weed underneath!

 Posted by on April 18, 2012 General Tagged with: ,
Feb 152012
Blue Screen of Death

"Blue Screen of Death." Photo by Taber Andrew Bain. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The act of setting a goal triggers a perfectionist reflex in many people and particularly in successful people. If your goal is targeting an area of weakness, you may unrealistically assume that you can easily achieve the same stellar performance in your area of weakness as you do in your areas of strength if you just approach it in the same way.

Sadly, we often find that there is a good reason why it is an area of weakness for us and that perhaps part of the reason why it is an area of weakness is because the same strategies we are comfortable with and that lead us to success in other areas of our lives just don’t work for this particular problem.

So, when failure inevitably occurs, it is tempting for a perfectionist to assume:

1) “This must be a sign that I am a ‘bad’ person and that the way I do things in general is wrong.”
2) “This is something that I will never achieve.”

Both of these assumptions lead to general feelings of depression and often the perfectionist assumes that the way to feel better is just to forget about this depressing goal.

Remember that the perfectionist has an “all or nothing” mindset. Either everything goes perfectly 100% of the time or it is a complete failure. There is no middle ground, no baby steps, no milestones and no room for improvement.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, it may be helpful for you to think of “restarting” your goal process. In the restarting process, you re-energize yourself by applying selective amnesia to all that has come before. Forget about the fact that you had a prior goal. Forget that you failed to achieve it. Make the same goal today with new energy and try it again.

In many ways this technique is similar to rebooting a computer. You may have lost some data that you will have to painfully reenter but in the end you will probably end up with something better than what you started with.

Sometimes giving yourself this gift of forgetting is all that is necessary to shed all the negativity and doubt that holds you back and to go attack and achieve that goal with new energy. But often it’s not. For the best results, you need to restart but with a smarter or different goal than before.

For example, if your New Year’s Resolution was to exercise 3 times a week and as of today you have yet to exercise even once, give yourself a break and “restart.” Your mindset would be to stay, “As of February 15, my goal is to exercise once a week.” If, by the following week you still have not made your goal, “restart” again. “As of February 22, my goal is to exercise 20 minutes every Saturday by going for a brisk walk with my dog.” You can still work your way up to exercising 3 times a week but it may take you a while before you get there. Documenting your different goals and their results (like a human science experiment) will really help you to learn the boundaries of the mindset that will ultimately work for you.

Mental traps can be so detrimental to our achievement potential. Giving yourself a break and a fresh restart can be one simple and powerful way to refocus and a great coping technique if you find yourself adopting a perfectionist approach to your goals.

Do you struggle with perfectionism when it comes to achieving a difficult goal? What techniques work best for you to cope with failure or subpar results? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on February 15, 2012 General Tagged with: ,
Nov 082011

I am now 8 days into my new diet and exercise regime. I can tell that I am getting stronger and gaining more stamina in my exercise program and I am getting used to thinking about fruits and vegetables all the time. But, to be sure, nothing I am doing is “perfect.” It might not even be “good,” but it is a step in the right direction at least.

Too often, when we think about diet and exercise, we think in absolute terms. We inherently assume that our own diet must be so terrible that we need something extreme to fix it. Forget moderation, we go right for the nearly impossible diets: no sugar, no fat, no carbs, no meat, low calorie, etc. It is probably true that if you were actually able to stick to such a diet that you would see an improvement in your health and lose weight to boot. The problem is that for most of us, these diets represent a goal that we have a very low chance of achieving before we cheat or give up out of hunger or frustration.

The same goes for exercise. Rather than start something simple like a walking regimen, people go for marathon training or P90X or something that is really ambitious. After a few days, they give up out of exhaustion, injury or being overwhelmed and disillusioned.

I often wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do we always go to the extremes? The answers I have come up with are:

  • We lack knowledge about what a realistic diet and exercise plan looks like. All we know are the extremes: couch potato or fitness fanatic.
  • We buy into the fantasy that we could be the kind of person who _______ (eats only pure, organic foods, goes for a 10 mile run every morning, etc.) but are not willing to make the sacrifices that the person who actually lives that lifestyle makes.
  • We want a criterion to judge our progress (or others’ progress) by. We prefer simple judgments like “Does this have sugar?” to complex judgments like “How much sugar does this have?”

I am living proof that a person can eat a pretty awful diet with minimal exercise and not be obese or have terrible health problems. (Of course, I know I should do better and that I may not enjoy this advantage forever. . . hence, this month’s theme.)

I think a big part of my success to date has to do with having a healthy psychological relationship to food. I don’t eat in secret and I don’t make a big deal if I overindulge in sweets or fatty foods (or if my kids do). I don’t obsess over my own appearance or anyone else’s. I see beauty as a complex formula of confidence, clothes, hair, skin and body size that does not have one answer. My priority for exercise is to have a body that functions the way I want it to with good energy, strength and flexibility rather than fitting into a particular dress size. Yes, sometimes I wish my body looked like a supermodel or some airbrushed image in a magazine but most of the time I have too much else to do to worry about that. I also accept that some people have the magic concoction of genes (or plastic surgery) that lets them look like that with minimal effort on their part.

So, as you read the posts this month, please don’t assume that I expect everyone to follow the diet and exercise plan that I am trying. I am just encouraging you to think through any challenges you are facing in this area and to find creative solutions that will work for your lifestyle. I hope to provide a successful example but even if my example is not successful I will have gained knowledge in the attempt and hope that you will too.

Do you always find yourself attempting the “perfect” diet or workout plan? Why? Do you think you could accept a realistic plan? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on November 8, 2011 General Tagged with: , ,
Jul 282011

"Babies" (1921). From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Hard to believe but summer is 2/3 over and it is time to recap this month’s discussion of perfectionist parenting!

I started the month sharing with you some of the Google search keywords people have been using to query perfectionism and the parent-child relationship and my own interpretation of what these keywords may be telling us.

We explored society’s tendency to blame parents for every defect in their children as well as recent research identifying the biggest regrets people have about their lives. I suggested that a major factor motivating perfectionist parents is the possibility to correct these regrets in their children.

My dad commented simply:


I reviewed the controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua and asked whether you identify with the 10 core beliefs of the tiger/perfectionist mom.

I compared and contrasted the upbringings of authors Sandra Tsing Loh and Amy Chua, both Asian American women raised by demanding parents, and the impact this upbringing had on their own development and parenting.

Ruth commented:

“I think too little expectations diminishes the potential return on investments–esp. with children!! . . . [E]ncouraging and pushing our children to try to exceed expectations is always a plus! and done correctly, these kiddos will thrive and continue to push beyond on their own as well.”

We looked at the experience of extraordinary mom, Rose Rock, mother of comedian Chris Rock, as well as 9 other children and 17 foster children. Mama Rock successfully raised all of these children in a tough, inner city environment, instilling in them excellence without perfectionism.

If we need a reminder of how important and how special mothers like Rose Rock are, check out this brief video for a current NPR series on the devastating impact of high school dropouts in the United States and how severely minority groups are impacted by this trend.

Ruly Ruth offered advice on how not to be unnerved by unsolicited parenting advice and the typical pitfalls faced by every parent.

Amy commented:

“As a retired counselor who worked with many families and children, I find these loving comments “right on!” Hardest job ever, parenting…take care of yourself first, the rest will follow…”

Finally, we took a peek inside the family counseling practice of Dr. Brad Sachs and looked at 10 examples of psychological hang-ups in perfectionist parents. Notably, these hang-ups have little to nothing to do with the actual behavior of children and largely deal with past, unresolved hurts in the parents’ lives.

I hope this month’s discussion has helped you think a bit more about your goals as a parent (or reflect on your childhood and raising) and perhaps identify areas where you might improve your technique or revision your feelings.

Next week, I hope to be starting a new parenting adventure of my own as well as a new Ruly theme. (Due to the impending birth of my child, I will have some content auto-posting on the website but you may not hear from me for a bit via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. For those who rely on e-mail or Facebook alerts, I will post a catch-up list of links when I return.)

Have a wonderful weekend!

 Posted by on July 28, 2011 General Tagged with: ,