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“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” Christopher K. Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

The newspaper headline in a USA Today Sports article written by Martin Rogers read, “Fall In 5,000 Delivers Real Uplifting Moment.” Rogers recounts a gripping story of tragedy and triumph from the Rio Olympics that prompted an outpouring of attention and support from around the world. In the split millisecond it takes to win or lose in an Olympic competition two women athletes who had never met before showed the world the inestimable value of reaching for connection instead of perfection.

…worthiness comes from knowing that regardless of what I am able to accomplish, I am enough.

With 4 laps of the 12 lap 5,000 meter race remaining, Abbey D’Agostino of the USA fell, causing her to clip Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. Both of them tumbled and fell to the ground. What happened next was gold medal worthy. D’Agostino stopped to try and lift her rival Hamblin to her feet. “Come on, get up,” she said, “We have a race to finish.”Hamblin returned the favor when D’Agostino struggled to resume the race due to her injury. Hamblin waited and steadied her until D’Agostino could move ahead on her own. Both of them finished the race, although well outside of the desired individual goals that both had worked so tirelessly to achieve.

Rogers recalls Hamblin’s reflection on friendship, compassion and gratitude instead of on failure, disappointment and defeat. “I am so grateful to Abby for doing that for me,”Hamblin said. “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there…It’s a moment I will never, ever forget for the rest of my life…When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years time, that is my story. She is my story.” Rogers concluded, “This is how sports should be. “Competition is important…but humanity is more so.” This will resonate more than anything else they could have done.”

These two amazing athletes showed us how setting inspiring goals for ourselves and having a willingness to do our best can be engaging and energizing. But perhaps most importantly, they demonstrated the necessity of recognizing and accepting that on the path toward those goals, our setbacks, limitations and imperfections need not be viewed as evidence of lack or loss or personal inadequacy. Without this awareness, not only can a disposition of perfectionism lead to a ruthless and relentless striving toward distant goals at the expense of the needs of the present moment, it can do much worse. It can break the spirit of a person in the process.

Pursuing impossibly high standards can have a significant and debilitating impact on our health and well-being. Challenging ourselves to live a conscious and meaningful life must include the ability to discern when being, doing and having enough is truly enough. By doing this, we can learn how to heal our tendencies toward perfectionism. Only then can we relax and heal into the circle of human capability, vulnerability, and tenderness that we all share. From this compassionate realization we will then be able to embrace our innate worth as we continue to increase our confidence in our ample sufficiency.

Understanding Perfectionism

Perfectionism is more than achieving a goal or having the desire to give something your best shot. It embodies a belief that one can never be good enough and that every mistake is a sure sign of being a flawed person. Perfectionists put undue pressure on themselves to produce and achieve, often becoming socially and emotionally isolated in the process. Not surprisingly, in a study cited in the Journal of Psychology and Health, researchers found that perfectionism resulting in high stress and low social support was directly associated with poorer physical health.

A compassionate view of perfectionism must include a look at its adaptive as well as maladaptive processes. On the constructive side, perfectionists are passionate about learning and improving. They are often adept at setting goals and tirelessly organizing their efforts around those goals. They exhibit a heightened ability to focus their undivided attention on meticulous details and planning. Maladaptive characteristics can include fixating on an all-or-nothing-approach, always looking for the perfect moment, setting unnaturally high standards for yourself and others, debilitating concern over making mistakes, harsh and critical self-evaluation, an overblown need for approval and sacrificing personal time and needs in an effort to “get it right.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with a desire to achieve or compete in life. But if either of these choices are the main or only route to being an “acceptable” human being, we will continually be driven by the anxiety and worry of never being enough. In his article, The Antidote for Perfectionismpsychologist and family therapist, Thomas S. Greenspon suggests that the anxiety over making mistakes holds perfectionists in its debilitating grip, often precluding success. He wrote, “The most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in the way. Waiting for the surgeon to be absolutely sure the correct decision is being made could allow me to bleed to death.”

Greenspon suggests that perfectionism damages self-esteem. During their formative years perfectionists may have received messages of conditional acceptance, “I will love you if…”. His antidote for perfectionism includes “building an environment of acceptance through empathy, encouragement and compassionate self-reflection. In Greenspon’s hopeful and encouraging view, “Overcoming perfectionism is a recovery process, more like nurturing a flower’s blossom than like fixing a broken object.”

Tips for Healing Perfectionism

While perfectionists are often good at doing a lot of things, the one thing they consistently lack is self-compassion. Only a perfectionist could envision winning a silver medal at the Olympics and deciding that it was a failure. “If only I had been a tenth of a second faster I could have won the gold.” In everyday life we can identify our own perfectionistic tendencies. “Losing 10 pounds is a start, but I should have lost at least 15 by now.” or “Yes, I was able to accomplish everything on my list but look how long it took me to do it.”

When who we are and what we are able to do never feels like enough we will continue to ruthlessly push ourselves to do more and more while feeling less and less satisfied. We may even give up on our healthy lifestyle goals altogether because we unforgivingly decide that if we can’t keep it up 100% of the time, then we don’t want to do it all.

Seeking and Receiving Professional Support

One powerful step toward healing perfectionism can include seeking and receiving the help and guidance provided through personal and professional support. By using a cognitive behavioral approach, a licensed therapist can help you to examine thoughts that create anxiety and fear and reframe them into more compassionate and realistic cognitions. Seeking mentorship from a trusted friend, family member, colleague or clergy can support you with a loving balance of acceptance and encouragement.

When to Call it A Day

On the journey to healing perfectionism, the question we must have foremost in our minds is this, “At what point is it okay for me to feel satisfied with “calling it a day”? In his book, Enough, A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enoughexecutive leadership mentor, therapist and minister, Wayne Muller wrote, “What deep and poignant confusion has so infected our hearts that we feel incapable of remembering this most essential, human offering: to do what we can and have mercy?”

To practice more mercy and less perfectionism, try the following:

  • Inventory what you have already accomplished. Reflect on the process and not just the end result. Give yourself credit.
  • Pause when you catch yourself seeking the approval of others. Instead, offer yourself generous and steady doses of gentleness, validation and reassurance.
  • When tempted to take on another project or additional responsibilities reflect on this question before deciding, “Would saying yes to this result in more nourishment or more depletion for me?”
  • Increase your self-kindness daily. Schedule a massage, pack a nourishing lunch, connect with a cherished friend, listen to your favorite music, choose a fun form of exercise that you will enjoy.
  •  Pay attention to and honor your thresholds for rest, hunger, solitude, and play.
  • Attend to your needs for physical, emotional and social intimacy sooner than later.
  •  When you make a mistake or don’t make a deadline, remind yourself that being imperfect does not equate with being inadequate.
  • Look for ways to foster a perception of light-heartedness. (Hint: An unmade bed is just airing out!) See Ornish Living Article, Laugh Often and Unleash the Benefits.

When Enough Is Enough

While life can never be perfect, it can be wonderful when we feel worthy of it. This worthiness comes from knowing that regardless of what I am able to accomplish throughout my life, I am enough. It is precisely this realization that is the gift we must choose to give to ourselves through our recognition, acceptance and celebration that it is so.

“Enough. These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life we have refused again and again until now.

Unitl now”.

-David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet

How do you compassionately cope with your tendencies toward perfectionism?

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

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