Authenticity Over Perfectionism: A PATHpod Reflection
The first awareness I developed about the work of a nutritionist/dietitian was as an eleven-year-old ballet dancer watching the film Center Stage. It was the scene in which Emily, a talented student in the preprofessional American Ballet Academy, was slighted by one of her instructors regarding her body shape. This teacher told her, with a mix of disappointment, judgment, and concern, to visit the nutritionist for “some good pointers”, with the unsaid message of figure out how to make your body conform to the standard we demand from you. To 6th grade me, it seemed like a punishment akin to being sent to the principal’s office for doing something bad or wrong.
From that point on, I assumed that those who worked in nutrition counseling were an exceptionally critical bunch who ate “perfectly” and took a disciplinary, scolding approach towards clients whose eating habits likely alarmed and infuriated them. It wasn’t until I entered the dietetics field sixteen years later that I discovered that the perception I’d long held about the profession could not be further from the truth.
Throughout my graduate study in Nutritional Sciences and subsequent Dietetic Internship, I learned quickly that dietitians (and aspiring ones) are some of the most compassionate, empathetic, and caring people who genuinely want to help people feel better about themselves, not worse. The standard of practice for nutrition counseling is not one size fits all, with a focus on determining realistic, attainable ways for each individual client to meet his/her/their health goals. It is also rooted in encouragement and resilience rather than fear and judgment.
The very first nutrition class I ever took was with an instructor who had been a Registered Dietitian for more than two decades, and an early lesson stuck with me. She told us that when a client strays from an agreed upon healthy eating plan, this was not a failure and should not be viewed as such. Instead, the client could approach this event with self-compassion and self-acceptance for being human, and then start anew the next day believing in their agency to take care of their bodies and meet their intended lifestyle changes. It was both fascinating and liberating to learn that the mentality for both the dietitian and the client/patient was not one fueled by perfectionism or never deviating from “clean” eating.
Fast forward to May 2021, which finds me enjoying the latest PATHpodcast from my San Diego-area apartment, listening to Toni and Jenny interview Kristi Coughlin, the RD and nutrition entrepreneur behind Bring About Happy. As Kristi shared her experience with her private practice clients, I was brought back to a belief that I had internalized for years- Perfectionism is a positive trait necessary for achievement and growth. The clients she described, many of whom were high-achieving, successful individuals, were also operating from this belief but found themselves filled with self-doubt, fear, and frustration. The approach of needing to be flawless and fully in control actually led to constant difficulty meeting and/or maintaining their nutrition goals. Kristi was able to pinpoint that this pattern was not nutrition-related, but in fact indicative of a much larger problematic mentality.
Though many perfectionists harbor traits that often lead to success and achievement such as responsibility, conscientiousness, discipline, and resilience, these qualities are NOT the same as perfectionism and CAN EXIST SEPARATELY FROM IT. Perfectionism comes from the belief that one should not be satisfied until he/she/they remove as many perceived flaws as possible, and that mistakes or missteps are indicative of one’s deficiency or incompetence. In her book Radical Acceptance, meditation teacher Tara Brach describes this phenomenon as the “trance of unworthiness”, an incessant pattern of thoughts which reinforce a person’s belief that failures and bad experiences happen because he/she/they are a problem that needs to be fixed. While easily disguised as a tool for self-improvement, perfectionism is in fact a continued mechanism of this trance and is often a recipe for stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other issues.
What Kristi discovered, both for herself and the people who benefit from her work, was that authenticity and self-love were the keys that allowed growth and success to manifest and flourish. Perfectionism, on the other hand, served as the ultimate barrier to both outcomes. Thankfully, the gals at the PATHpod provided a platform that not only allowed this message to be shared but continued to be a shining example of how supportive and inclusive the nutrition and dietetics field is. Had I not decided to pursue a nutrition career, I would never have known that so many amazing, hardworking people were there to tackle complex nutrition and public health issues with innovation, empathy, and motivation to help others feel positive about being seen. As a Registered Dietitian who seeks to improve nutritional status, health, and wellness in communities, I have learned firsthand that authenticity is the lifeblood of connections and trust. And, as Bring About Happy so eloquently tell us, real is so much better than perfect.
To learn more about Kristi's awesome work, visit https://bringabouthappy.com/ and @bringabouthappy on Instagram and be sure to check out this and other great PATHpod episodes and posts at https://www.thepathpod.com/ or on IG @thepathpod.
And if you were brought to this post courtesy of Toni or Jenny, here are my top 5 Road Trip songs in honor of the series (picture a drive up the US West Coast):
Into The Great Wide Open- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Teenage Dream- Katy Perry
Cherry Lips- Garbage
Lost In Yesterday- Tame Impala
No Scrubs- TLC
Wishing you happiness in your authentic self wherever the road takes you!