The Trap of Trying to “Control” My Symptoms

The allure of perfectionism in eating disorder recovery.

6 min readJul 7, 2021
Artwork by Jenna Simon

This is Part 2 of my ongoing series on my eating disorder recovery. See Part 1 here. Please note this article contains descriptions of disordered behaviour and may be triggering to some. Reader discretion is advised.

It’s one of the most humiliating feelings, to be engaged in a behaviour that you know makes no sense. To care about something that you know you shouldn’t care about.

After I broke through the first wall of my denial about my eating disorder, I went inward, searching for answers as to “why” I felt the way I did. I approached the idea of recovery like a detective, like a journalist, like a scientist. My brain was a puzzle to be solved. And there was a solution out there. If I read enough articles on Psychology Today, The Mighty, or Everyday Feminism, perhaps I’d find THE one thing I needed to know or do that would make the eating disorder go away.

I imagined that if I knew why I felt the way I did, I would be able to find the solution on my own and cure myself. That way I wouldn’t have to humiliate myself further by having to admit I needed help from anyone I actually knew.

Photo by Nick Shandra on Unsplash

Seeking help in books and online felt different somehow from asking my parents for help again. After the way my first attempt to ask for help turned out, I couldn’t bear the thought of having not only my parents but my brothers watching me at every meal and thinking what I could only assume would be pitying, judgemental and/or skeptical thoughts. If I proved to them how serious it really was; asked them for help — every single time we had a meal together my eating disorder would be an unwelcome guest, overshadowing me, making every choice I made suspect. If they knew how bad it was, when they looked at me, they would only see the eating disorder, in the tightness of my waist, the sharpness of my joints. I didn’t want them to see me like that. I wanted them to see ME.

Or rather, I wanted them to see the image of myself that I was trying hard to portray to them all. An image that was perfect, yet creative. An image that met the strict expectations of my mother, yet asserted my personality. I wanted them to see and love the “real me” while at the same time live up to who I was expected to be.

An eating disorder doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This I did learn from my extensive reading on the subject. My eating disorder was one manifestation of the perfectionism I’d developed in response to emotional abuse from my mother. The expectation from her that I must live up to the “golden child” she needed me to be. The perfect student. The ever-sympathetic ear. The political echo. Always appreciative, always happy, always reflecting back to her the image of the perfect mother she needed to believe herself to be. Any discordant note or dissent, any sign that I wasn’t “living up to my potential”, that I wasn’t acting “in line with her values”, that I wasn’t happy living this way — and suddenly I was ungrateful, hurting her, making her suicidal. I would feel such guilt at her weaponised hurt that a slight mistake would cause me to ruminate for days.

Jenna Simon depicts the “mask” that most people with eating disorders wear.

The cognitive dissonance I spoke about in Part 1, it wasn’t just about my eating disorder. It was present in every part of my life. My self expression, my sexuality, my beliefs and values. In trying to be the person my mother wanted me to be, the more it seemed that my innate desires — for freedom of belief, for sex, for food — were inherently wrong and must be controlled. And yet, part of me lusted for them all the more.

I couldn’t help expressing myself or I’d go mad. But finding ways to express myself that were also within the narrow bounds of what was acceptable by my mother, required a great deal of control and vigilance. The same kind of control that kept me on the tightrope between wanting to be thin, but not so thin that anyone would notice that I was sick. Wanting to control my food and restrict, under the nose of my family who could see everything I did.

In a perverse way, my eating disorder both reflected the control I felt imposed on me by my mother’s abuse, but also served as a form of rebellion against it.

Is it any wonder that I wanted to stay in control of my own recovery? That I wanted to believe that I could cure myself without having to make myself vulnerable to my abuser?

I do not blame myself for having wanted to hide, for having engaged in denial. For having wanted to find a way to save myself, without sacrificing the image of myself that my mother needed in order to love me. And I did find a great deal of self-awareness through my “detective work”, that helped me understand myself and feel less shame. Serendipitous events helped as well. For example we moved to a house where one wall of my bedroom was a mirror. I was initially very triggered by it, but it worked as a form of exposure therapy, and eventually I was able to see my lower half without panicking.

Another thing that helped immensely was finally moving out of my abusive family home. Experiencing sex with my soulmate and having him worship my body and feeling myself to be beautiful under his gaze and fingers. All these things were accompanied by a reduction in severity of my distress and so I was able to tell myself “I cured myself”.

Photo by Eugenia Maximova on Unsplash

I was not cured, however. I was not in as much anguish as I had been before, but the eating disorder was still there — it had just morphed into a different form.

The problem with my “self help” was not that the information I uncovered was useless, or that I didn’t find some ways that helped me reduce the severity of my distress around my body — but that I was trying to control my symptoms, which were in and of themselves an expression of an already over-controlled mindset. I was trying to use the tools of perfectionism, to overcome perfectionism.

My methods had become subtler. “Recovery” became a form of bargaining with the eating disorder. I told myself that the fact that after five years of restriction and purging, my body was still about the same size and weight as it had been before I started having the eating disorder, meant that my set-point weight must be around this mark and thus I didn’t need to restrict or purge so long as I ate within the 8700kj range (ideally lower) every day. I told myself “so long as I stick within the recommended dietary guidelines, and exercise moderately every day, I won’t get fat and I don’t need to restrict or purge if I stay within this range”.

To me, that sounded like an eminently reasonable statement. It probably does to most people. But I was still running the calculus of kilojoules with every meal, still measuring the layer of fat on my stomach with a fingertip, feeling for my hipbone as I walked, still sucking in my stomach every time I passed a window, trying to avoid the rub of my thighs together as I walked. I was still validating the belief that if I DID gain weight it would be something to panic about, a sign of failure. I was still living as though the eating disorder’s beliefs were true. I just had convinced myself that so long as I stayed within a particular range of behaviour, they didn’t apply to me.

That was not recovery. Even though I congratulated myself that it was.




“The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds” — Cloud Atlas