Perfectionism and Self-Compassion
In group yesterday, we talked about what perfectionism is and how it impacts our lives. Perfectionism has different parts: 1) the pursuit of unrelenting high standards, even at great personal cost, and 2) the attachment of self-worth to the achievement of these standards.
Perfectionism is not inherently bad, nor is it inherently good. It can come at opportune or inopportune times; it can increase our drive or promote avoidance; it can be the reason that we succeed and the reason that we think we’ve failed. I’ll explore a few of these phenomena in more detail.
Let’s take a personal example. This past year, when I was in school and working and trying to be a human and take care of myself, I made an unprecedented number of to-do lists. Sometimes, I would wake up in the morning knowing that I only had an hour or two to get a mountain of things done. Can anyone relate?
Perfectionism (the drive for high standards) would get me out of bed and tell me that I hd to get everything done because that’s what I promised myself. On its own, this could be a very positive thing - if I’m able to be efficient and do everything, I feel great and motivated (and maybe a little tired) and worthy of self-congratulation and moving on with my day.
But let’s say (as most often happens) my goals are too ambitious. Or maybe I even put some things on my list and they won’t actually serve me. Maybe I start on everything and I’m running around and trying to get it all done and feeling anxious, stressed, and un-grounded.
The perfectionistic voice in my head tells me I’m a failure. If I could just be more efficient, I’d get it done. Maybe I even just have anxious feelings and don’t really know where they came from. Maybe instead of looking at my to-do list, I’m actually just sitting on the couch scrolling through my phone instead of doing anything at all.
When perfectionistic tendencies go too far, they result in self-flagellation, feelings of anxiety or unworthiness, and even avoidance. As a youth counseling intern, I realized that the main reason many kids don’t do their homework is anxiety and perfectionistic feelings about the outcomes.
It’s easier to relentlessly work or avoid altogether than it is to sit with the discomfort of not-good-enough.
That is the insidious side of perfectionism. Nothing is good enough. And, back to the question of self-worth, if your overall feeling about yourself turns into a loop of not-good-enough, how worthy of love, energized, and connected will you feel?
As I was leaving my job for the night, it struck me that the antidote to perfectionism feels like self-compassion. Self-compassion is 1) noticing that you are suffering, and 2) responding compassionately to try to alleviate some of that suffering.
Many times, I was able to adopt a more compassionate response to myself in the throes of being too busy and moving too fast. What did that look like?
Sit down. This is step one. My perfectionism manifests in rushing around and anxiously keeping myself busy. And even if you are sitting already - avoiding - put down the distractions and sit with the discomfort of all you have to do. Just sit with it. 2 minutes of pause.
Evaluate your priorities. From the place of sitting, evaluate the pressure that has built up on you for what you need to address now and what you can address later. Can you save laundry for tomorrow? Do you need to tidy the whole house, or could you be okay with just doing the dishes? Do you maybe need to prioritize something else altogether - go connect with someone? Journal a little? Get back into your body, your center, get grounded?
Find some way to soothe yourself. How can you talk to yourself differently? Can you phone a friend who will remind you that you’re worthy even if you don’t finish the 20 things you have to do? Can you snuggle a pet, dance it out, go for a walk?
Can you find a sense of compassion for yourself that is not conditional on what you’re trying to do?
A balanced life does not look like no drive (and if there is truly no drive, is this actually sneaky perfectionism at work?). It also does not look like driving yourself to exhaustion.
Finding balance requires a realistic sense of values, priorities, and what you need - moment by moment, day by day, this evaluation is ongoing. I have found that self-kindness, pauses, and evaluation of priorities have all enabled me actually to have an overall better experience of my to-do list, even when it doesn’t get any shorter.
If this resonates with you, drop me a note. I’d love to continue the conversation!