We all have different ways of approaching a task and different work styles. If you're a perfectionist, you probably have really high standards for yourself and are quite focused on making sure everything is 'just right'. This can certainly have benefits, but can easily tip into stress and anxiety. Do you ever feel that perfectionism is causing you to go overboard and having a negative effect on your wellbeing?
If not managed well, perfectionism can easily make you feel unbalanced and lead to stress and burnout. If you think that you're a perfectionist, you might find yourself procrastinating for fear of getting things wrong, or over-working to the detriment of your mental and physical health. You might even become overly sensitive to perceived criticism and risk falling into anxiety and depression if you believe yourself to have achieved anything below your own high standards. When perfectionism
results in negative consequences such as these, it's called maladaptive perfectionism (1).
Overcoming maladaptive perfectionism
There are many steps you can try to begin loosen the grip of perfectionism, but there's one key element that has been proven important and that is kindness to yourself or 'self-compassion'. A recent study has shown that self-compassion can help to protect against maladaptive perfectionism. In the study, researchers at Australian Catholic University found that people who practice self-compassion were less likely to suffer from maladaptive perfectionist tendencies. Lead author
Madeleine Ferrari writes, "Self-compassion [...] consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression" (2).
How to practice self-compassion
Self-compassion is a core tenant of the ancient Buddhism teachings from which mindfulness originated. Psychology professor at the University of Texas, Dr Kristen Neff, who has studied self-compassion for many years, breaks it down into three defining elements (3):
Extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh self-criticism and judgment.
2. Shared human experience
Seeing one's experience as part of the larger human experience rather than as separating and isolating.
Holding one's painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.
The thing to remember is that those who practice self-compassion are able to recognise that it's normal to make mistakes and to have times of suffering. When things are not perfect, they don't blame themselves but hold their experience in kind, loving awareness. They treat themselves in the same way that they would treat a loved one. This results in a much healthier and more sustainable way of working.
How can self-compassion help you manage perfectionism?
A compassionate approach to perfectionism involves responding to negative perfectionist thoughts with kindness rather than engaging directly with them. When you're able to meet negative thoughts with compassion they become diffused of their power and have less of a hold over you. This can be very freeing and will help you to feel calmer and less stressed.
Taking ten minutes to practise a self-compassion meditation once a week may help you to build up your compassion 'muscle' and make it second nature to respond with self-compassion when those negative perfectionist thoughts arise.
Find a quiet place to sit on a chair or on the floor. Place your hand over your heart. Bring to mind the face of a loved one (human or animal!). In your mind repeat the phrase, 'May you be peaceful, may you be happy, may you live with ease' and direct kind and loving thoughts towards your loved one. Allow thoughts of kindness towards this being to grow and spread through you. Feel your body soften with kindness. Try not to direct your thoughts to specific outcomes but imagine your compassion as a warm glow that will envelope your loved one and soothe, comfort and nourish in whatever way is needed.
Now, bring the focus of your compassionate attention to yourself. This may be difficult at first – don't worry. It's enough to simply set the intention to feel compassion for yourself. Try to sit without judgment and gently repeat to yourself, 'May I be peaceful, may I be happy, may I live with ease.' Notice what it feels like to really let these words land. Let warmth and kindness encircle you.
Gently continue with your day carrying a feeling of care and acceptance with you.
Quick self-compassion therapy
Here's a quick strategy that you can use in the moment when you find perfectionism starting to get the better of you:
1. The first step is to be aware of perfectionism when it arises. A good way to notice this is to regularly tune into your body. Notice any muscles becoming tense and tight. When this happens, ask yourself if there any perfectionist thoughts creeping in? These thoughts might include things like, 'There's still more I need to do', 'It's not good enough', 'So-and-so is a better artist/parent/colleague than I am'.
2. If you notice a perfectionist thought, try to simply observe it without engaging with it. Then label it: simply say to yourself, 'That is a perfectionism'.
3. When you have acknowledged and labeled the thought, there's no need to focus on it any further. Know that it's fine for the thought to be there and it will simply fade away in its own time.
4. Place your hand over your heart and feel into a sense of kindness towards yourself. Remind yourself that you are doing your best and that you are worthy of love and compassion. Let a feeling of warmth and kindness spread through you and comfort you. When you feel ready, return to whatever you were doing with a renewed sense self-acceptance and peace.
Remember, you don't give compassion to those you love based on how well they are doing professionally, how perfect their Instragram pictures are or how much money they earn. Self-compassion is the same – you don't need to earn it, you can be kind to yourself whatever your circumstances. You deserve kindness and the more you practice offering it to yourself the more benefits you will discover!
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1. Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886907002760
2. PLOS Journal: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0192022