I have the pleasure of teaching a 10-week workshop series to college students, Overcoming Perfectionism through Self-Compassion. All told, 10-12 hours is not much time. Yet spread over two-and-half months, continuity is cultivated just by showing up. Certain ideas begin to sink in. Originally, I based the series on The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, because I love the 10 guideposts for wholehearted living she delineated. I threw in some skills from my book, The Kindness Cure, and a few meditations from Making Friends with Yourself, a lovely curriculum based on mindful self compassion practices. I borrowed some concepts from Tal Ben-Shahar’s book, The Pursuit of Perfect. (All good resources for those working on recovering from unhealthy perfectionism). It’s been a mashup of sorts.
My goal was simply to begin a discussion about the tight hold that unhealthy perfectionism can have, how to understand its purpose without self-judgment, and ways to rejigger one’s perception and nervous system for greater acceptance, calm and wellbeing. We need to shine a light on our fears of failure and rejection to offset the false lure of perfectionistic behavior. Every week a core group of undergraduates and grads arrived ranging in age from 19 to 45; and others popped in from time to time, making for lively intergenerational discussion. (Perfectionism is persistent.)
Unhealthy perfectionism is also rather exhausting. We all fall into this trap to some extent because our culture highly values ratings and rankings. Brené Brown’s definition is super helpful to ignite a conversation, especially in a population of high achieving students who are chronically hustling for success and approval.
Here’s what Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.
Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.
Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s a thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
Are you onboard yet? Any notion of “Oh shit. That’s me. I’m definitely hustling for worthiness.” Wait, there’s more.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement.
Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.
And perhaps my favorite point:
Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve?
Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?
One of the first things that students are invited to notice is their negative mind loop. After all, each of us has a chorus of naysayers and judges constantly pointing out every perceived weakness or flaw. Sometimes the voice tells you to quit before even getting started. Yes, that imposter syndrome can keep you playing small. This of course can be ruinous if you close off your gifts, talents, interests, or passions. Often students will refrain from taking risks out of some particular fear, causing enormous stress and unnecessary suffering. (See article on the negativity bias).
Observing the dialog is a first step in extracting oneself from self-flagellation. When you tune in to your inner narrative, often there is surprise, if not shock, at how demeaning or demanding these voices are. (Tune in for 10 minutes and write down the words or stream of consciousness.)
We’re all pretty good scriptwriters, actors, producers and directors of our own mental movies. It’s pretty impressive, really. It’s quite a skill set albeit for the wrong use. Here’s the thing:
We can recruit our imagination for our benefit or for harm.
In my work with college students it has been useful, and actually fun, to name the inner critic. I even have a third chair in my office for it to join us. My willing students are very creative. For instance:
- One young woman realized her inner voice was like the character “Monica”, on the show Friends. ….pretty tightly wound up about every detail. Her inner Monica would pipe up whenever she felt out of control with school work, and she’d find every excuse to tidy up or fix something.
- Another student realized that his compulsion to join every opportunity or club in order to “optimize his resume” – was really about a fear of missing that one key experience that just might hit the jackpot… for getting that coveted internship or job at Goldman Sachs. He was chronically exhausted. He called his inner critic, FOMO.
- One of my favorites is from a student who realized that her perfectionism, which caused her an almost paralyzing anxiety, including an inability to let herself to socialize or have any fun was, as she put it – “robbing her of joy.” She called her inner critic “Mooch.”
Think about it, whether it’s an inner bully, or a Judge Judy, or a Nagging Ned, what might the voice be protecting you from?
It’s probably the usual (and very human) suspects: failure, rejection, or shame.
It’s there as a signal and as an invitation to notice and befriend it, and perhaps even to silence it — turn down the volume — and assure it that “Hey, I’ve got this,” or “I’m going to try something different this time,” such as practicing to be less harsh — and even kind — when facing failure, rejection or shame. Tal Ben-Shahar advises us to “practice failure.” I say fail forward with self-compassion and empathy. Over time you’ll learn that you are stronger than you think you are.
There is resistance, I assure you, in embracing failure. That’s why — in addition to cultivating a thick skin — it is essential to have a soft heart.
How? As you may suspect, we also harbor a kind and gentle voice. We need to give it more air time. In fact, it deserves a principal role in our inner theater. As with learning anything new, this requires practice to develop a counter narrative. It also requires allies, like the students who showed up in my group.
You can create messages of kindness to meditate on and repeat, which calms your body and nurtures goodwill toward yourself. This goes for guys too. This is not a girly thing. It’s essential to care for or “coach” the parts of yourself that are scared, vulnerable and critical, as if these unwanted aspects are friends in need. Treat yourself like you would a loved one, friend or buddy.
The instructions for creating these mini-scripts are simple:
- Be clear.
- Be authentic and true to your experience
- Use a kind tone.
Whenever you need bolstering, you can craft a message by asking yourself: “What do I need to feel calm in my body?” or “How can I bring caring (or kindness or grit or courage) to this moment?”
The answers are typically universal human needs: belonging, connection, encouragement, love, patience, protection, respect, tolerance, validation, and well-being.
Here are some self-kindness kickstarters:
I am strong. I’ve got this.
I hold myself gently.
I love myself just as I am.
I trust in myself.
I am here for me, I am here for you.
I am enough.
Even though this feels hard, I will be kind toward myself.
I am beginning to feel love and kindness expand.
I will be okay.
This [fear] will pass.
Your self-compassion statements can change over time. It is wise to try them on for size, even if at first a statement may not fit or feels awkward. In this case, a wise inner voice might say, “This is how you take care of yourself. It may take some getting used to!”
While the inner critic deserves acknowledgement, it doesn’t belong on center stage. It has a bit part to play once you notice the motivation it has in stopping you from being hurt or rejected. These inner characters do not like to be demoted to a cameo appearance, so beware of push back.
The wise voice, however, deserves center stage. The wise voice also doesn’t want you to be in pain or distress but it has a different approach than the inner critic. It helps you take in the goodness of who you really are and treat yourself with care and respect. Allow it to have airtime throughout the day. After all, practice makes progress.
Check out my The Little Deck of Kindfulness as a great kickstarter for cultivating a kind and courageous inner voice.