Addressing Perfectionism With Compassion

When I think about a perfectionist, I see the woman who not only looks great — the right clothes, hair, car — she also has the perfect life. Nice house, lovely partner, well-behaved kids. She’s together and she does it with ease. She might work 80 hours a week but she’s happy doing it and gets it all done.

Perfectionism can be messy

Perfectionism can be messy

But perfectionism doesn’t always show up in obvious ways. In fact, perfectionism can even look a little messy! On this week’s Woman Worriers podcast, I spoke with Sharon Martin about her book, The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance, and she shared that sometimes perfectionism looks more like avoidance or procrastination.

Perfectionism could be stopping you from truly engaging in your life. You might struggle to send emails because you feel the need to check and re-check the wording to be sure you don’t offend or make a mistake. You put off doing work because you feel like you can’t — but should be able to — do it flawlessly. Or maybe you decide not to go to an event because you’re sure you don’t have the right outfit, the right job, or live in the right place. 

Perfectionism Can Make Us Feel Less Than Perfect

Believing that our mistakes reflect poorly on us, or feeling that other people are constantly judging us, can create a lot of anxiety. We think that need to be perfect all the time and if that’s not possible it’s not worth trying.

Being a perfectionist can make you pretty hard on yourself. You might make matters worse by allowing your inner critic to comment on how you’re failing. You might call yourself lazy, stupid or worthless. You might even tell yourself that you’re going to get fired or won’t get hired because you don’t have what it takes.

If you find that you’re holding yourself back or withdrawing most of the time, you might be stuck in a perfectionism loop. That’s when you don’t feel you can do the “thing” perfectly so you put it off. Putting off the task increases your anxiety, so you continue to avoid the task. Then you start to criticize yourself and make assumptions about your abilities. That makes you feel even worse, so you avoid or distract yourself some more.

You might believe that self-criticism will keep you on your toes and stop you from making mistakes, but more often it’s just encouraging you to stop putting yourself out there. Sadly, instead of making you feel better, fixing what went wrong or helping you learn from your mistakes, negative self-talk leaves you feeling worthless, less-than and sometimes hopeless.

Soothing Our Critical Parts

Self-compassion can ease distress

Self-compassion can ease distress

Self-compassion — treating yourself as you would treat others who are struggling — can help ease the burden of trying to be perfect and reframe your perfectionist thoughts into more compassionate ones. Martin’s book has some great exercises to help you cultivate more self-compassion and help ease the discomfort around being an imperfect human. You can find the book here.

Here are four tips I encourage my clients to use to help bring more self-compassion and mindfulness into their lives when the perfectionist parts want to take charge:

  1. Be mindful and start paying attention to your negative self-talk. When that negative voice pipes up, ask yourself, with curiosity, “What prompted that?” Try to identify what that part of you is afraid of or what you are worried about. Sometimes journaling when you’re most critical of yourself can help you identify the things in life that make you feel less-than. We call those things your triggers.

  2. Make a note of the negative things you tell yourself and ask, “Would I say these things to a close friend?” If not, then say out loud or write down what you might tell a friend who was struggling with the same thing. Try saying those things to yourself.

  3. Notice your triggers. As you begin to recognize when you get triggered and become more aware of your negative self-talk, pay attention to those moments. When they arise, I want you to try to say to yourself with compassion, “Wow! I just said some really mean things to myself. I would never say that to a friend. I was ready to put myself down for not being perfect, and my critical parts jumped in without my noticing! I’ll try not to be so hard on myself.”

  4. When times are tough, remember that everyone struggles from time to time. It’s a part of the human experience. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or when that critical voice wants to berate and minimize your difficulties, try saying to yourself, “I’m struggling right now. We all struggle once in a while.” You can also place your hand on your heart and repeat these phrases: “May I be peaceful. May I be safe. May I be healthy and may I live my life with ease.”

I hope these techniques help you quiet your inner critic, ease your perfectionist urges and bring more self-compassion into your life.

For those who live in the Annapolis area, I’ll be leading mindfulness groups for women that help cultivate self-compassion. You can find out more here.

If you enjoyed this blog post and would like more insights into living with anxiety, tune into the Woman Worriers podcast. In each weekly 30-minute episode, host Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, and her guests explore living with anxiety, relationships, parenting, surviving trauma and other topics and offer insights into mindfulness, meditation and other helpful resources.

Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger,  creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md and she’s been featured in these major publications. Elizabeth helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual, online and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979