A lot of people I talk to about mindful eating are perfectionists. And I can sympathize, since I have this tendency myself. I think diet culture fosters this “all or nothing” approach, where things can’t be good enough. If you haven’t done something perfectly, if you’re not the best, then you’ve failed.
This way of thinking is damaging – and also completely untrue. It’s impossible for everyone to be “the best,” and as humans, it’s also impossible for us to be perfect.
Laura Vanderkam touches on this in her book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. (I also mentioned the book last week in my discussion of the differences between our experiencing self, our remembering self, and our anticipating self.)
She looks at why it’s helpful to take a “good enough” approach, with “better than nothing” goals. These reasons apply to any area of life, but I’ll go through them with an eye towards mindful eating.
Reason 1: Moving away from perfectionism also leads away from a negative self-narrative
Professor Barry Schwartz at the University of California, Berkeley, spent time looking at the lives of people who strive for the best (maximizers) and people who take the first option that meets their criteria (satisficers). And he discovered that people who look for that perfect ideal are overly influenced when things go wrong.
As Vanderkam writes: “A bad day can’t be accepted as a bad day. It becomes evidence of some larger narrative of life being on the wrong track.” (p. 176)
This comes up a lot with eating issues. It’s very easy to feel like if you don’t eat perfectly (whatever that means), you’ve failed and might as well give up.
But what if you set a reasonable standard for eating? Then if you met that goal, even if it wasn’t perfect, you could feel good about it. And you’d be far less likely to be thrown by having a bad day – you could realize it’s temporary and not a reflection on your whole life.
Reason 2: Not looking for the best removes the need to compare
By default, if you’re trying to be “the best,” you have to compare against something else. Usually that’s something external, but it could also be some idealized picture in your head.
But this sets you up for failure because you can always find someone or something that seems to be doing better than you. And then you feel miserable because you haven’t reached your goal of being “the best.”
From an eating perspective, this can play out in so many ways. Maybe you feel like you’re not eating the right numbers of fruits and vegetables, or the wrong kind. Or you’ve had too many carbs or sweets. Or you’re not being mindful every single time you eat.
None of us are perfect, and none of us are even always our best. Remembering that helps get away from comparison and automatic failure.
Reason 3: You’ll have more time and energy
When you stop focusing on “the best” and being perfect, you’ll not only rescue yourself from the pain of comparison – you’ll also save time and energy.
From an eating perspective, this can come in two ways: less time deciding about food choices; and less time and energy spent beating yourself up.
It’s all too easy to turn food decisions into a long, agonized process when they don’t need to be. Of course, it still helps to be mindful of what you’re eating. But if you’re having trouble figuring out what you really want or need, you could consider giving yourself a time limit. When that’s up, just make what seems like a reasonable decision.
Doing this also means you don’t need to beat yourself up for not making the perfect decision. It just means that if you later realize it wasn’t a great choice, you can make note of it for next time. It’s a learning opportunity, not something that has to ruin your day, week, or life.
Reason 4: “Better than nothing” goals boost your ego and help motivate you
Vanderkam advocates focusing “on process goals, which are habits by a different name.” (p. 181) Doing this instead of focusing on results removes some pressure for getting to the outcome.
Plus, as she points out, you can make these process goals incredibly small and easy to achieve. “Set them so you can beat them with ego-boosting regularity. These little goals are simply ‘better than nothing.’” (p. 182)
From a mindful eating perspective, maybe you could say you’re going to eat with undivided attention for 1 minute today… or 30 seconds… or whatever time works for you. Or that you’ll pause for a certain time before eating to appreciate the food. Pick whatever you know you can do.
When you focus on these small steps, and you accept that it’s “better than nothing,” you’ll routinely meet that goal. This keeps you motivated to continue, and who knows? Maybe you’ll start exceeding your goals.
Reason 5: Focusing on doing what you can gives better results – and greater happiness
The other benefit of this focus on small goals is that you’re actually more likely to get your desired results.
Artist Laureen Marchand commented about the benefits of focusing on what she could do instead of committing to a certain amount of time in her studio. She realized how stressed she’d been when she didn’t get to her studio, and that the stress “was reducing the energy I did have to use during the time available.” (p. 189 – emphasis added by me)
Even better, when she removed the stress, making art became enjoyable again.
This really struck me. If you spend all your time torturing yourself about your food choices, and feeling bad about not “eating perfectly,” eating stops being fun and pleasurable. And that’s a shame, because food really is amazing and wonderful, and eating should be a celebration.
So by letting yourself eat mindfully when you can, and using your food-related time and energy on those moments, you’re more likely to enjoy your meals – and want to continue being mindful.
This all boils down to using gentle persistence in small things instead of focusing on the “perfect” outcome and big result.
And you may even find that it leads to better self-acceptance. As Vanderkam noted, the results “that need to come out will come out with gentle persistence. Love, including self-love, is patient, which is really another word for being generous with time.” (p. 189)
With that in mind, what are some “better than nothing” goals you might set for yourself that would relieve stress and lead to greater happiness? I’d love to hear them!
For me, I’m making it my goal to return to the practice of lighting a candle before dinner and focusing for at least a few seconds on gratitude for the food.
And I hope that this gentle persistence, for you and me, brings greater to joy to our lives.