Carolyn Hax: High school perfectionist is hiding eating disorder

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 15, 2012

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I’m a junior in high school, and have always been a quiet, people-pleaser, super-overachiever type. I’m very active in sports and academics, and I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect and do what other people want or expect of me.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that I tend to cave to people’s demands and let myself get stepped on, and I’m too afraid to advocate for myself. All this pressure to be perfect and always make other people happy is literally killing me — in the form of an ongoing eating disorder. I’m too scared to ask for help, but I don’t know how to handle this alone. On the inside, I’m really hurting and I don’t know why. I feel so guilty all the time, but I don’t know how to stop the cycle.

Perfectionist


Is there a counselor at your school, or a teacher you trust enough to say to out loud, “I feel a lot of pressure to be perfect, and it scares me even to say this”?

A parent is the logical first choice but also the hardest to “disappoint” — thus the suggested intermediate step.

Think of it as just telling one person, that’s it, and even practice out loud so it doesn’t sound strange when you hear yourself.

What to expect from someone in a helping profession? Compassion. I promise.

If you just can’t bring yourself to do it — or if you’re not confident there’s an adult in your life who won’t judge you — then please call the National Eating Disorders help line, 800-931-2237.

What you’re feeling isn’t uncommon . . . in fact, if you have about 30 minutes to burn, watch this video. Most people have some fear they’ll make a mistake and fall into the abyss. Find someone who your gut tells you will not judge you, and give this person a chance to help; talk to that teacher or coach, see the counselor, or make the call.

For Perfectionist:

I used to be a high school teacher, and teachers would listen to your worries with compassion, concern and nonjudgment. High school is HARD. Almost every single student struggles with something — self-esteem, family issues, grade pressure, feelings of failure, etc. It is normal, and the teachers there WANT to help.

Anonymous

Agreed, thanks. Also shared, along with those struggles: the fear, unfounded, that everyone else seems not to be struggling.

For Perfectionist:

It took me more than a decade to figure out that you don’t have to be perfect to be lovable. I was afraid to tell anyone about my problem and was afraid that if I couldn’t control my food intake I’d lose control of everything, but please know that’s not true. Please seek some help, and know that many readers like me are pulling for you.

Anonymous 2

Thanks for the firsthand account. In fact, our imperfections not only make us lovable — and approachable — but also, ironically, bring out our best. To know and admit our shortcomings is the only way to master them.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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