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Control: When Perfectionism Fails

“Turn on, turn off, turn on, turn off. Good, done, walk away from the faucet now.”

Classic OCD symptoms.

It’s 5 a.m. The house is quiet and it’s still dark outside. I’m half asleep but I have to do it. I have no choice. The voices in my head are real and I believe them. I hear my dog wake up; he’s hungry. I tell myself that he’ll be fine and I will feed him when I am done. Can’t you see I am on a mission here?

I walk up the stairs, still wiping the sleep from my eyes, water bottle in one hand and headphones in the other. I walk into the room and spot the treadmill. The terrible, horrible, dreaded treadmill. Start. I convince myself that I love this. Finally, I establish a groove and I am on my way to five miles today. It’s already set it in my planner, so I have to do it.

I’m about 45 minutes in and boom. The treadmill resets. Blank. Where’s my data? What mile was I on? How can I be sure I was 45 minutes in? I remember seeing the number 45, but of course I can’t be sure of that.

Exhausted and anxious, I step back onto the treadmill and yes, I start the whole run over again. I am crying through the run, angry for my lack of trust in myself, and yet determined to do the run and see that beautiful number 5 next to the distance tracker.

Done. Now walk away. There it is, July 3rd. With my planner open on today’s date, I confidently put a line through today’s workout. The voices in my head say, “Victory!” I can breathe now.

Control. This is what rules me — my need to be perfect, mainly in my relationship with food and exercise. If I maintain a level of control around what I eat each day and how and when I move my body, I feel worthy and confident. Take away my rights to make decisions around these two subjects and I am a mess. Whenever I hear people say, “it’s out of your control”, I don’t believe them. I believe I can maintain control wherever I please.

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There is a very dark side to exerting this level of control over your life. For me, I lose my drive, passions, relationships, and most of all, freedom. I lost my ability to go out to eat, to attend parties, to have sex, to love, to be creative, and to love myself.

When your life is planned around your mealtimes or when you work out, you have a problem. If you obsessively check, double-check, and triple-check the nutritional label on the yogurt you have had many times in the past, you have a problem. If you refuse to go out to eat because you are afraid the steak is not grass-fed, you have a problem. If you feel forced to work out each day and wish you didn’t have to do it, you have a problem. If someone asks you to try a bite of his or her meal and you don’t out of fear that it would ‘add more’ to your meal, you have a problem. Get my drift?

This was my life. I am far from recovered but I am on the journey. When you hear people say, “you have to hit bottom,” I truly believe it. After terrible depression, eight suicide attempts, and self-medicating with alcohol, I still wasn’t ready to hand over my headphones.

Years later, I took a look around one day and saw that I was losing everything. I had to leave my job because I was too depressed. I stopped seeing friends because it interfered with my meal times. I couldn’t have sex because I was no longer producing estrogen. Yet I had a family, friends, and a loving boyfriend who all wanted to help me.

I had a panic attack one day when I was “supposed” to work out and was too tired. Crying in my living room, I said to myself, “I am getting help; I cannot live like this any longer.” So, I embraced recovery. I’m only a few months in but already I can see beautiful change.

If you relate to this article or know someone who may be struggling with control, eating, or exercise addiction, look into help. Please don’t continue living in this hell that you convince yourself you like. Recovery is attainable and awesome.

Treadmill photo available from Shutterstock

Control: When Perfectionism Fails

Marianne Riley

Marianne Riley is a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology. She specializes in body image, self-esteem, eating disorders, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Marianne earned her undergraduate degree from Towson University and her graduate degree from The Johns Hopkins University. She has worked at both the group and private practice level, as well as taught undergraduate classes at American University in Psychology.

APA Reference
Riley, M. (2018). Control: When Perfectionism Fails. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.