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  • Jessie Brennan, MPH

Perfectionism Got You Down? Try Some Self-Compassion

Perfectionism is defined as the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one’s goals, with no allowance for falling short of one’s ideals. Perfectionism runs rampant in leadership circles. There is a running joke with many of the leaders that we work with about this very fact. It typically goes: “Of course perfectionism isn’t something any of you are dealing with…” *wink wink, nudge nudge* and all of the guilty parties (just about everyone) glance around the room and smile a little bit.


Perfectionism is an interesting subject, because despite understanding the considerable downsides to perfectionism, we’re still a little bit proud of our perfectionist tendencies. It’s the thing we talk about during a job interview when the interviewer asks us to share a weakness, because in the end, we actually kind of see it as a strength. The truth is it can be a strength, but it can also be a debilitating weakness. It’s a double-edged sword.


The downfall of perfectionism is when our entire sense of self-worth is tied up in our success, so much so that failure is not allowed. This is when the striving to achieve becomes tyrannical, when anything other than perfection simply will not do. Perfectionists experience enormous stress and anxiety about getting things exactly right, and we feel devastated when we don’t. The unrealistically high expectations of perfectionists mean that we will inevitably be disappointed. By seeing things in black - and - white terms — either I’m perfect or I’m worthless — perfectionists are continually dissatisfied with themselves. This drive for perfection can actually keep us from taking risks and trying new things. For everything that we try for the first time, we run the risk of not doing it well, or even failing.

Now let’s look at the upsides. Any perfectionist would probably argue that this aspect of their personality has contributed largely to their success. Perfectionism pushes us towards doing our best, achieving our goals, and setting high standards for ourselves. These can all be positive and productive traits, necessary for leadership, as leaders are expected to set ambitious standards for themselves, and their teams.


So how can we identify when perfectionism is contributing to our success and when it is contributing to our defeat? Psychologists have organized perfectionists into two categories: adaptive perfectionists and maladaptive perfectionists, depending on whether the perfectionism occurs with self-criticism or with self-compassion. Individuals high in adaptive perfectionism hold high standards and aspirations, but treat themselves with self-compassion when they don't succeed. On the other hand, maladaptive perfectionism, also called self-critical perfectionism, includes the high standards of adaptive perfectionism but is also tied to high levels of self-criticism and even shame.


Adaptive perfectionism has been found to contribute to improved health and wellbeing, while self-critical perfectionism leads to considerable psychological burden, including a tendency to avoid problems and to work in isolation. One of the benefits of developing self-compassion as a leader is that it can nurture adaptive as opposed to self-critical/maladaptive perfectionism. Leaders who maintain high standards and aspirations accompanied by self-compassion (rather than self-criticism) are less likely to avoid difficulties, more likely to be creative when confronting problems, and more likely to engage others when resolving those problems.


Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional wellbeing and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort through all of the difficulties of life, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation while fostering happiness and optimism. When we practice self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves towards the positive, towards the potential in any given situation.


According to Kristin Neff, leading self-compassion researcher, self-compassion entails three core components:

1. Self-kindness- being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.

2. Recognition of our common humanity- feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.

3. Mindfulness- holding our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.

Self-kindness requires that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that characterizes maladaptive perfectionism, and that many of us have come to accept as normal. According to Neff, this isn’t about stopping self-judgement, which isn’t entirely realistic, but about actively comforting ourselves, as we would a friend. It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, “This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?” With self-kindness, we offer ourselves warmth and gentleness, versus judgement and scathing criticism. From this space, healing can occur.


Recognition of our common humanity is the aspect of self-compassion that differentiates it from self-acceptance or self-love. After all, compassion is by definition relational. The word literally means “to suffer together.” Self-compassion is not just about the self, but an acknowledgement of all of human nature. It demonstrates acceptance of our fallibility as humans, and honors the fact that wrong choices and regret are inevitable. Self-compassion is about demonstrating tenderness towards oneself because, like others, I too am feeling pain.


Mindfulness refers to the ability to clearly see what’s occurring in the present moment, because to give ourselves compassion, we first have to recognize that we are suffering. There are times when our suffering is so deep and intense that there is no way we can miss it, however, we often fail to recognize smaller moments- feelings of guilt, defectiveness, loneliness, etc. as moments of suffering. With mindfulness we are able to clearly see the smaller slights that cause suffering, and we can respond with compassion. Mindfulness gives us the space to stop for a breath, and acknowledge that we’re having a hard time, and that our pain is deserving of a caring response.


How do you typically react to yourself? What type of language do you use with yourself when you notice a mistake, or a personal flaw? If you are highly self-critical, what are the consequences of being so hard on yourself? Is it motivating you or making you feel more discouraged or depressed? As humans, we are imperfect by nature. No amount of self-punishment will change that. And no amount of self-punishment can undo mistakes or regretful choices.


If you are in a difficult or stressful situation, you deserve compassion. If you are at fault, you wronged someone, or you made a mistake, you deserve compassion. Rather than condemning yourself for your mistakes and failures, you can use the experience of suffering to soften your heart. You can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection, and choose the kind of loving acceptance that leads to real satisfaction- all by offering yourself compassion in the moment.


Resources:

Developing self-compassion in leadership development coaching: A practice model and case study analysis, Karol M. Wasylyshyn & Frank Masterpasqua

Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff

Take the Self-Compassion Scale assessment at: https://self-compassion.org/self-compassion-test/

For practices that build self-compassion: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/


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