The gut-perfection connection
I’ll admit it. I’ve been a perfectionist all my life.
Not about everything, just the things I really care about.
One way perfectionism shows up in my life is procrastination. Not normally a procrastinator, I notice this tendency surface when I want results to be perfect, but am overwhelmed by the demands.
Ironically, and weirdly, I’ve been a bit perfectionist about this blog post, sitting on it for much longer than usual, trying to get it just right.
You see this blog post is a big deal because in the midst of writing it I made an amazing discovery about the relationship between perfectionism and the gut. Here it is:
I’ve noticed through experience, that people with IBS have something in common. They all describe themselves as perfectionists. I know this patten holds true, but I didn’t understand why.
I understand that perfectionism exacerbates gut problems. The feelings of not being good enough, high expectations, the stress of failure and pushing yourself past your limits all have obvious emotional and physical impacts on digestion. But this doesn’t explain why IBS types are like that in the first place.
And then I read the Mood Cure by Julia Ross, and had an “aha” moment.
Ross is an expert body chemistry and mood disorders and writes in her book that perfectionism is a classic symptom of low serotonin. So is obsessiveness, which drives perfectionist tendencies further.
Did you let that sink in yet?
Now consider that most of the serotonin in the body is produced in the gut! In fact, some people theorize that IBS is a result of serotonin imbalance in the gut. I don’t believe that, but I do think that serotonin imbalance sets the stage for IBS. But it doesn’t mean digestive symptoms will occur.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and emotion. It also influences cravings for carbs, self esteem, pain tolerance and sleep habits. There’s also a connection between low serotonin and conditions like Season Affect Disorder (SAD) and eating disorders like anorexia/bulimia. Lack of serotonin can cause depression, anxiety, pessimism and irritability.
People are either born with low serotonin production or lower it through stress, diet and bad habits.
Isn’t this the “perfect” ending to my “IBS type” series?
First we looked at the sensitive nervous system of people with IBS. Then we examined how metabolic type can predispose some people to IBS. Now we dive into the relationship between perfectionism, IBS and serotonin.
Isn’t perfectionism a good thing?
One can argue that striving to be perfect helps you be and do you best, right? Calling it perfectionism puts a positive spin on it, but there are negative elements associated with a perfectionist attitude, such as being overly controlling and not being able to let go.
I’m not judging, believe me, I’m right there with you. I suffer from this too. Which makes me wonder about my own serotonin levels? There are tests available to get a clearer picture of your chemistry.
How perfectionism effects your health
One of my first blog posts indirectly discussed perfectionism and how it effects the body. It resonated with people, who left lots of comments and sympathies with my perfectionist struggles.
With perfectionism comes high expectations and a high risk of failure. If you’re shooting for perfect, expect disappointment, stress and comparison. Does that sound healthy?
Stress lowers serotonin availability in the body even more! For us sensitive, emotional types, pursuing perfection is a losing battle. The fall out of perfection far outweighs the positives. We know this, of course, intellectually, but reason is useless because in the end, it’s all driven by body chemistry.
The pull of perfectionism feels too strong, even if it means pushing yourself when you should rest, or trying to control the uncontrollable. It means living in a low level state of disappointment with what is and berating ourselves for how we are.
This is no way live, especially for anxiety types. It’s a cruel joke, this need to overcompensate for our own chemistry.
There are many ways to boost serotonin in the body, which I’ll write about in next week’s post. But meanwhile, here are some useful ways to deal with perfectionism when it threatens your health or quality of life.
How to tackle perfectionism
This is how perfectionism can show up in your body: restricted breathing, muscle tension, compromised peristalsis (intestinal contractions), over production of cortisol (stress hormone) and teeth grinding.
Notice that many of these functions are involuntary. A deeply contracted and tense body will disrupt lymphatic flow and the body’s ability to detoxify or truly, deeply relax.
Perfectionism often feels like the inability to let go, which can manifest physically as constipation or holding onto toxic thoughts/emotions.
You can’t tell a perfectionist to stop being perfect, because they’ll try to do it perfectly. So if you identify with this blog post, don’t try repress your perfectionist tendencies. It will backfire. If you try to suppress it, it will only grow and persist.
Here is a better way, I learned from my practice of Chi Gong. When perfectionism comes up, simply observe it in action without judging. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Write them down so you can start spotting patterns.
Then notice how you feel in your body. Where’s the tension of perfectionism living? In your shoulders, solar plexus, ankles? Is there an area of your body that is tight, restricted or buzzing?
If you find a sensation, try to relax it. If breath is short, deepen it. If shoulders are tight, relax them. Don’t try to hard.
If this is difficult then just stay with step 1 of noticing the thoughts that come up. If you really pay attention you may notice how ridiculous that inner perfectionist conversation really is. But don’t judge it. Just notice it.
This practice won’t shift your tendency to be a perfectionist but it can shift your reaction to it. You might find eventually that you don’t have to play along with perfectionist urges.
And remember perfectionism can be disguised as other things, like compulsiveness, procrastination, desire for productivity, need for speed (impatience) or the desire to control.
It can show up in weird ways or unexpected areas of your life. Learn about your personal flavor of perfection and what triggers it. How do you measure yourself?
The opposite of perfection
The opposite of perfection is surrender. You completely relax and go with the flow. You are not too attached to outcome, you’re just along for the ride, feeling confident you can handle whatever arises.
Does that sound like crazy talk to you? Yeah, me too.
Being out of control and going with the flow is scary as hell. So that’s why I practice it in the safest way possible. I simply lie down on the floor and practice letting go of my body tension so energy can flow uninterrupted. This is how I surrender to life, safely in my bedroom with a blanket and eye pillow for extra comfort.
This teaches my body how to let go when it is safe to do so. And it also happens to boost serotonin production while you’re at it. A win win.
Next week we’ll talk about how amino acids, like tryptophan and 5 HTP can balance serotonin.
We’ll also discuss how quitting caffeine, not skipping meals, reducing stress, getting more sunlight/exercise and eating a diet high in protein/fat and low in grains/ sugar can help balance serotonin.
And if all else fails, try a little bit of gratitude practice. Thinking about things you are grateful for boosts serotonin naturally.
Angela Privin is proof that IBS is NOT an incurable disease or a disease at all. IBS is a body out of balance. It’s an invitation for change. After solving her own IBS mystery more than a decade ago Angela trained as a health coach to help others.
Angela uses both science and intuition to help people figure out what’s out of balance in their body. She works with lab tests, dietary changes, supplementation and nervous system rebalancing. Get help rebalancing your digestive system and solving your IBS mystery here.