Last week we covered “Wholehearted Living Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity”, which talked about how living an authentic life can have a huge impact on our relationships and overall wellbeing. As previously mentioned, Brene Brown (a psychological researcher that I have tremendous respect and admiration for) outlines 10 Guideposts to wholehearted living, of which we are going to cover one guidepost a week over the next ten weeks. These guideposts not only effect our personal wellbeing, they also have a tremendous impact on our relationships and connections. This week we are covering the second guidepost “Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting go of Perfectionism”.
When I was first becoming acquainted with Brene Brown’s work, one of the topics that struck me the most was her view of perfectionism. I, a self-proclaimed perfectionist at the time, was floored by this guidepost. Brene describes perfectionism as a “self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feels of shame, judgment and blame” (Brene, 2010, p 56). She explains that this is a self-destructive system because there is no such thing as perfect. In fact we are setting ourselves up for failure, and when we fail it confirms our belief that we need to be more perfect. In the end, perfectionism leads to shame and an overall sense of not being good enough.
I see this belief and pattern of thinking all the time when working with people. The overwhelming sense of needing to do something perfectly can be paralyzing and lead to not even trying at all. Perfectionism says that “to not try is better then to try and fail.” This black and white thinking leads to us being very harsh and critical of ourselves, and it can even spill over into our beliefs and views of others. It is terrifying to step out and task a risk as a perfectionist because you feel as though your self worth is on the line. Making mistakes or failing isn’t an option because that translates as “I’m not good enough.”
Perfectionism has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with the world. It therefore has a major impact on how we approach our relationships. Perfectionism is a race that tries to out run having to be vulnerable at any cost, but we cannot have true relationships and intimacy without vulnerability. There is a sense or guiding belief that “if I am not perfect, I am not good enough”, which also has an impact on our ability to be authentic. To be perfect is to hide who we really are and put on what we think everybody else expects of us. We have to learn how to embrace that we are human beings bound to make mistakes, let go of the pursuit of perfection, and start the journey of becoming who we really are.
Brene Brown’s solution to perfectionism and self-criticism is to cultivate self-compassion in our life. She explains that the wholehearted people she came across in her research were able to talk about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, without shame and fear, and were slow to judge themselves and those around them. She continues to explain that self-compassion involves the ability to be kind to ourselves, realizing that as humans mistakes will happen, and recognizing our experiences without ignoring them or over-identifying with them. Here are some ways that I believe can help us cultivate self-compassion and let go of perfectionism:
Becoming aware and challenging our self-talk
We are all constantly talking to ourselves throughout the day, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. This brain chatter is called self-talk and has a powerful impact on how we shape and perceive the events of our day. Critical or perfectionist self-talk looks like “ I didn’t go to the gym today and ate ice cream, I’m so fat, I can’t do anything right” which eventually leads to the thought of not being good enough. More balance and healthy self-talk looks like “well today is shot: didn’t make it to the gym and ate ice cream after dinner. Tomorrow is a new day and I’ll do better tomorrow.” Our self-talk has the power to tear us down or help us understand that we all have bad days and tomorrow is a fresh start. When it comes to perfectionism and self-compassion, here are a couple of healthy self-talk statements to practice when we fall into the trap of not feeling good enough:
- No matter how this situation goes, I am good enough
- I just need to try my best and that is good enough
- “Failing” at something doesn’t mean I’m not good enough it just means I am human and I make mistakes
- I am imperfect and I am enough (one of Brene Browns coping thoughts!)
- People are drawn to someone who is authentic; I don’t need to be perfect
Learning to tolerate and even embrace vulnerability.
I know that this was also mentioned last week, but vulnerability ties into most of the 10 guideposts. To have self-compassion means to step out and take risks and not take it personally if you make a mistake or “fail” at something. Learning to tolerate and see the value in vulnerability is a better option then spending your life trying to out run it and feeling like a failure every time it catches up with you.
Knowing the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving for excellence.
Perfectionism should not be confused with healthy striving. As we learned, perfectionism is a shield or type of armor we put on to avoid feelings of shame, vulnerability, judgment, and blame. It actually can prevent us from excelling because it is driven by fear. Healthy striving on the other hand is not driven by “what will others think?” but rather by “how can I improve?” Brene Brown explains that perfectionism actually hampers success and it often leads to depression, anxiety, fear and addiction. Lets make the switch from worrying about others, to starting the journey of becoming a more refined version of ourselves.
This is such a big topic, and I am aware that we just grazed the surface. I however hope that you gained some insight towards how to live a more wholehearted life, and how to connect with people in a deeper way. Next week we will discuss the third guidepost “Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting go of Numbing and Powerlessness”. I would love for you to comment and share ways you have been able to cope with and overcome perfectionism in your life, and ways you practice self-compassion.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are. Centre City: MN, Hazelden