Perfectionism and balancing the nervous system

This week, a theme of perfectionism has appeared throughout our treatment programme. The internet defines a “perfectionist” as “a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection”. Interestingly, a perfectionist trait is listed as one of the symptoms of someone suffering with an eating disorder. But why is this so? And how does the opposite – procrastination – feature alongside this?

The nervous system and our window of tolerance

Recently, we picked up a copy of Bodies Arising: Fall in Love with your Body and Remember your Divine Essence by Psychologist and Psychotherapist, Nichole Schnackenberg. Within the book, Nichole explains Professor Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance model and how exposure to perceived threat or trauma can make us vulnerable to shifting in and out of our window of tolerance. 

To explain, our window of tolerance is defined as: “a state within which emotions can be tolerated and information integrated”. So often in eating disorders, we witness people in a state where they cannot tolerate their emotions, and instead engage in behaviours that distract them from tuning into their emotions and how they feel within our bodies. This, like many coping mechanisms, is a survival response that has developed to help us feel safe and fearless, when we’d otherwise feel overwhelmed with fear.

When something triggers us to move out of our window of tolerance, we stimulate our autonomic nervous system which results in us shifting into either our sympathetic or para-sympathetic nervous system.

Perfectionism and the sympathetic nervous system

Our sympathetic nervous system is a response dictated by hyper-arousal and is defined by a “fight or flight” response. In this state, we may feel highly anxious, with a seemingly involuntary response to perceived stressful situations. We are more likely to experience our world as full of threats and feel constantly on edge. We might want to move around or constantly fiddle with things and our heart rate may be higher than usual.

Perfectionism and constantly keeping “on the go” is one of the ways we may channel this state of hyper-arousal in an attempt to get ourselves back to our window of tolerance. If we perceive our world as full of threats, applying a perfectionism attitude helps us to feel “in control” of what’s happening around us and to us. It keeps us out of a state of fear as we focus our attention very specifically and to a minute degree.

Whilst this response is a survival response, it is not conducive to wellbeing as it puts a lot of stress on us physiologically and psychologically, and further pushes away the emotions and experiences that we must heal in order to live freely and contently.

Where does the para-sympathetic nervous system come in?

The para-sympathetic nervous system is almost the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. It’s characterised by an “immobilisation” response and is, again, an attempt to protect us and keep us feeling safe when we would otherwise feel overwhelmed.

It is activated when our sympathetic response becomes so aroused that we simply cannot handle it. At this point we may “freeze or fawn” – shut down entirely or “lose ourselves” in the present. We may disassociate or feel numb to emotions.

Again, in this state we are likely to engage in behaviours that soothe us back to our window of tolerance. We might literally slow down, be more inclined to sleep (longer than needed) and be reluctant to move around as we normally would. We may procrastinate (as opposed to maintain perfectionism) and may eat compulsively in an attempt to soothe us into returning to a state where we can tolerate our emotions.

Balancing the nervous system

Interestingly, we can move between these states regularly depending upon who we are and what we experience in our day-to-day lives. Our hyper-arousal (sympathetic) state may be triggered at work when we are “gifted” stress from our colleagues, and our hypo-arousal (para-sympathetic) state may spike when we are feeling so anxious that we tip over the edge and become “numb” to the anxiety – some may recognise this feeling in a panic attack.

Whilst this may sound intense, remember the point above that we can freely move between these states. No matter how ingrained our pattern of behaviour may be, we can do various activities to help bring us back to our window of tolerance. Nichole lists many suggestions in her book, but for today, our suggestion would be to simply notice.

Notice whether certain behaviours, compulsions and activities reflect a sympathetic or para-sympathetic nervous system state. For instance – what music do you listen to in the morning? Do you pump yourself up? Or relax yourself into the day? If you pump yourself up – what would it feel like to not do this and, instead, witness the thoughts and feelings that arise in simply “being”?

Another one – what does your relationship to exercise look like? Again, would you define it as “joyful movement” where you’re witnessing and honouring the strength of your body, or, is it a means of stimulating endorphins and “riding that high”? It may be that you enjoy the fatigue that follows when your body and mind becomes quieter to conserve energy.

Keep in mind that you are only human. These states are normal responses and we should accept and forgive ourselves for the amazing ways we attempt to cope.

For more reading, check our Nichole’s book, Bodies Arising.

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