In Depth: Self Compassion

In Depth: Self Compassion

For an introduction to Dr. Brené Brown’s 10 guideposts, see this post. For more on the topic, see her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.”

Guidepost 2: Cultivating Self-Compassion (letting go of perfectionism).

Guidepost 2 is sort of my nemesis. For one thing, I am a born perfectionist with deficient self-compassion skills. For another, it’s hard to talk about with others because so many people are bought into the myths of perfectionism that I get blank stares when I say things like: “You can’t control how other people perceive you,” or “trying to be perfect isn’t the same as being your best self,” or “perfectionism isn’t being perfect; it’s being keenly aware of your many faults to the exclusion of living a peaceful, wholehearted life.”

Before we can embrace the power of self-compassion for a wholehearted life, we have to confront the shame-driven perfectionism that makes us truly believe that anything but constant striving is weak, selfish, and will lead to laziness. Perfectionism is not trying to do what Dr. Brown calls “healthy striving,” but instead it is a relentless taskmaster with shame right along side insisting that no matter what we’ve done, we’ll never be good enough. And, if we can ever accept that perhaps we are good enough, shame will pop up on the other side with, “Who do you think you are, fancy pants? Sit down and get small lest your arrogance shows.”

This is not an equation we can solve.

There’s another side of perfectionism, too, one that I think tends to be invisible. I have come to think of it as the underachiever/overachiever coin. Same coin, two different sides. Where an overachiever may never stop moving, running, working, and shaming themselves into oblivion, an underachiever may never begin a project, never let something be visible at all, and may become paralyzed in their own shame-underperforming-shame cycle. They will delay decisions and projects that may be of great value to themselves and the world because they can’t get it as “right” as shame says they should. These perfectionists are harder to see, and they may languish in the shame identity of lazy and unmotivated while instead they are so paralyzed by fear, shame and doubt that they are working twice as hard as the overachievers but remain trapped inside their own heads.

Fundamentally, no matter our flavor of perfectionism, it is exhausting, shame-fueled, and not useful to being a wholehearted person. A good rule of thumb is this (paraphrased from “The Gifts of Imperfection”): Perfectionism is concerned with what others will think of us, while healthy striving is concerned with what we actually want. Perfectionism, Dr. Brown says, “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.” There’s a temptation to blame ourselves for our pain. If we were better, we wouldn’t experience shame or pain. If we work hard enough, we can avoid scrutiny. If we are never wrong, we can never be rejected.

In other words, perfectionism (including that overachiever/underachiever coin) is simply an elaborate way to avoid feeling bad.

I know I had the belief that if I just worked hard enough and did well enough I would have the love I wanted, the body I wanted, and the accolades I wanted without any sadness, shame, or negative perceptions of me. I believed that if I worked hard enough, no one would ever disagree with me or dislike me in any way. It sounds ridiculous to say aloud, but when living in my head that belief drove my every choice and action for most of my life. Still does, at times, because a belief like that doesn’t disappear overnight.

Perfectionism doesn’t work. That’s the key thing. It doesn’t help us avoid pain. It doesn’t make us universally loved. It doesn’t make us more valuable or worthy. It makes us overstressed, miserable, addicted, depressed, anxious, and exhausted. It makes us never good enough. It doesn’t—I repeat, it does not—make us better. It makes us unhappy and not wholehearted.

OK then. Perfectionism is not going to work for its intended purpose, and it’s probably hurting us. Now what? In my head it went like this:

Step 1: Accept that perfectionism won’t save us from pain.

Step 2: ???

Step 3: Profit!

If we stop letting shame and perfectionism run the show, then who runs it? If we don’t dedicate our lives to controlling the perceptions of others, what the heck do we dedicate our lives to doing? Maybe I should stop saying “we” because I really did struggle with this a lot, though perhaps others don’t. I just had a big hole where all my decision making was when I did this work. If I’m not working for the myth of a totally safe never hurtful life, than what do I do at all?

The answer, of course, is self-compassion. Instead of the high shame of perfectionism, I try to lean into loving kindness for myself. I use the three elements of self-compassion delineated by Dr. Kristin Neff in her groundbreaking work. (Note that self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. This blew my mind, and Dr. Neff gives an amazing TED talk on the subject here.)

To to answer the now what question, here are the elements of self-compassion (paraphrasing Dr. Neff’s work):

1: Be kind to yourself. Say gentle, loving things and do not put yourself down. If we are suffering, we must hold ourselves as we would hold a friend. It feels fake and awkward. Do it anyway. I might say to myself “Oh, Amelia, you’re suffering right now. I’m so sorry. This is so hard.”

2: Remember that suffering is the thing that binds us as humans. Suffering isn’t unexpected in a full life. If we are feeling pain, shame, hurt, judgment, or sadness we are simply living life. Almost every human being feels these things throughout their lives. Suffering sucks, but it’s normal. We have not failed or done wrong to be here, suffering. We are simply alive. In the past perfectionism would drive me to believe that if I had just XYZ, I would not be suffering now. I am at fault for all my suffering and therefore unworthy of love or happiness.

3: Mindful practice. If we aren’t aware that we are suffering, if we have decided that shame is a useful tool rather than the roadblock it is, if we are accustom to our own pain we cannot practice self-compassion. We need to be able to identify our suffering, name it, even share it with someone safe. We need to know how we feel. We can do that best through a practice of mindful awareness.

I suspect this is a hard-to-sell guidepost. Perfectionism feels like a safe blanket; perhaps one that’s stifling and preventing people from really knowing us but safe, too. All I can tell you is that I believe in my soul that perfectionism has not made me happy and content. Self-compassion has helped much more than running my ass ever did. Try it for a month. See if it helps you, too.