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Goodbye Perfectionism, Hello Self-Compassion

Contributor #4: Let Go of Perfectionism and Develop Self-Compassion

In his book The Pursuit of Perfect (2009), Tal Ben-Shahar writes, “We routinely refuse to accept our own humanity…If your daughter did not earn first place in a competition, would their imperfect record diminish your love for them? Probably not. And yet when we ourselves fall short, we often regard ourselves as wholly inadequate, utter failures.” You have probably experienced your own and society's expectations to be perfect in every way - to look younger, to be richer, and to be happy all the time. But according to Tal Ben-Shahar, the pursuit of perfect may actually be one of the greatest internal obstacles to finding happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar points out that the perfectionist rejects failure and painful emotions, not allowing him/herself the permission to be human. The aim, therefore, is to become an optimalist, who accepts failure, painful emotions, success, reality, and lives fully within the full scope of the human experience. Though as an optimalist you may fail, you accept the reality of the situation and move forward.

Developing self-compassion ties in with this work; it involves letting go of your debilitating self-judgment and self-criticism and replacing it with kindness, warmth, and understanding. If you would show compassion for a loved one who was going through a hard time or was feeling inadequate in some way, why not show that same compassion towards yourself? Rather than ignoring your pain and choosing to white-knuckle through it, stop and say to yourself, “This is really hard for me right now, what can I do to support and care for myself?” Rather than ruthlessly judging and criticizing yourself for your imperfections or mistakes, self-compassion embraces being loving and empathetic with yourself when you are confronted with your failings. While you may believe that you need to be harsh and critical towards yourself in order to get yourself motivated, the research of Dr Kristin Neff, a leader in self-compassion theory, strongly suggests that people who are more self-compassionate lead healthier, more productive lives than those who are self-critical. For example, students who embrace self-compassion engage in more adaptive academic coping strategies, such as developing mastery goals as opposed to performance or avoidant goals (Neff, Hsieh and Dejitterat, 2005).

If you find yourself struggling with perfectionism, consider registering for the Coping with Perfectionism workshop where you will discuss the role perfectionism plays in your life and develop tools for overcoming it. You may also want to try the Compassionate Relaxation or The Compassionate Self meditations developed by Counselling Services.