Self-Compassion: The Antidote to Perfectionism

 
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“I’m a failure if I am not perfect.”

“I have to strive for perfection, otherwise I won’t accomplish anything or be successful.”

“I shouldn’t make mistakes.”

“I should be able to predict problems before they occur.”

These are all harmful thoughts that stem from perfectionism, and painful feelings like these can lead to anxiety, depression, chemical and process addictions and life paralysis due to fear of failure. 

Researchers in Australia released a paper in February 2018 based on their study of more than 1,000 children and adults to understand the effects that self-compassion had on perfectionism and depression. The results of the study showed that people who showed themselves compassion were able to reduce the level of perfectionism that leads to depression and other negative side-effects.  

WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?

To appreciate how self-compassion can alleviate the negative effects of perfectionism, let’s be clear on what perfectionism is and is not.

Perfectionism is when someone becomes overly concerned with being perfect — both in themselves and from others — to the point that it negatively affects their actions and experiences because nothing is ever good enough in their eyes.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.
— Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Healthy striving, on the other hand, is usually not harmful. This is the kind of striving that makes people want to be the best they can be. These individuals are often high-achieving, set high goals for themselves, take into account their personal strengths or limitations, and are resourceful when going after a goal. In other words: they don’t get carried away with the literal idea of “perfect.” They’re human after all, and no human in this world is perfect.

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.
— Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

WHY IS PERFECTIONISM SO HARMFUL?

Perfectionism is self-destructive because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfectionism creates an insurmountable and unrealistic ideal in our head of how we should look or be.

This causes us to set an unattainable, ever-moving bar that we are constantly chasing but never able to reach. We criticize ourselves for not being capable of attaining or deem ourselves unworthy of that “perfect body,” or ”perfect home,” or “perfect job” or even “perfect relationship.” Then, even if we do get close to what was once our goal, we realize that goal wasn’t good enough and set a new bar to reach. Or, we convince ourselves that our loved ones will think we’re a failure in some way. By allowing harmful thoughts of perfection to wreak havoc in our lives, we are constantly running on a hamster wheel, so to speak. It’s an addictive, exhausting hustle, and we are never able to reach a place of true contentment and acceptance.

While we may be able to accept and understand the flaws of others, we are often our own toughest critic, unable to accept the same flaws in ourselves or mistakes of our own. Perfectionism is a form of shame or that feeling of not being enough. Luckily, the practice of self-compassion can help ease and even eliminate the mental turmoil that perfection causes.

HOW SELF-COMPASSION COUNTERACTS PERFECTIONISM

If perfectionism prevents us from trying new things out of fear of failure, leads to procrastination due to anxiety of living up to high-standards or causes us to beat ourselves up when something isn’t “perfect,” then self-compassion allows us space to grow, break, heal, fall and get back up again.

  • It allows us to learn from our past experiences and to view them as lessons instead of mistakes.
     
  • It allows us to freely explore the possibilities the world has to offer, whether big or small, instead of sticking to what we know we can do well or not trying at all.
     
  • It allows us to accept and appreciate everything that makes us who we are, instead of comparing ourselves to others or striving for unattainable ideals.
     
  • It allows us to be human.

Next time you find yourself struggling with thoughts of perfection, treat yourself with self-compassion by doing the following:

  • Be mindful and simply observe the perfectionistic thoughts and label them when you notice them: “That is perfectionism.”
  • Remember you are not alone. Other people struggle with perfectionism too. It’s human to want to want approval from others and to avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame by trying to be perfect.

  • Be kind to yourself. Place your hand over your heart. Allow each beat to spread a feeling of warmth and understanding through your body. Remind yourself it is ok to be perfectly imperfect. You are enough exactly as you are.

  • Ask yourself what would you tell a friend in a similar situation. Can you give yourself the same words of care and encouragement?

By practicing self-compassion you will be able to free yourself from the harmful prison into which perfectionism entraps you.

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