Self-Compassion: The Antidote to Perfectionism and Self-Critical Thinking

Perfectionism is often worn like a badge of honor by the overachievers of the world. While people realize that perfectionism can keep them in a spiral of self-critical thinking, the thought process often goes, “but if I keep criticizing myself, I will improve. I will become the version of myself that I truly want to be, and what could be wrong with that?”

Unfortunately, there are several problems with it. First of all, perfection is an unattainable goal. Humans are innately imperfect. That is what it is to be human, so the search for perfection will never end. Even you did manage to perfect one part of your life, there is another part waiting and ready for you to start worrying about next.

The second problem with perfectionism is that it leads to all kinds of mental health problems. Constant self-criticism leads to eating disorders, anxiety, and depression, just to name a few. People often think that their perfectionism and self-criticism are helping them to be motivated, but it works in just the opposite manner. By punishing yourself into your own depression, you’re putting yourself into the least motivational mind state possible. People with depression often have difficulty even getting out of bed, let alone performing at impossible levels of perfectionism.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but self-compassion is a much more effective way to improve both performance and mental health.

So what does self compassion mean? Well, there are three components: Mindfulness, Self-Kindness, and Common Humanity.

Mindfulness means being in the present moment without judging that moment as either good or bad. In order to work on being kinder to yourself, it’s important to be able to be present with your own thoughts, and to catch yourself being self-critical. This can be a tall order for some. Many people spend most of their time trying to escape their own inner thoughts by being in a constant state of distraction.

Often the perfectionistic mindset makes being present with our own mistakes and self-criticism much too scary. If the goal is to be perfect, admitting that we’ve fallen short of our own ideals can lead to more self-critical thoughts. The problem with this is that it keeps people from growing. In order to learn and grow, we have to be able to admit that there are parts of ourselves that are in need of work, which leads to the second component of mindfulness.

Self-Kindness means giving to yourself the same kind of gentle concern that you might give to a beloved family member or close friend. If your loved one came to you saying that they’d made a big mistake and that they were mentally beating themselves up about it, the kind response would be to something like, “It’s Ok. We all make mistakes. I still love you.”

Self-compassion is about taking that same kindness and giving it to yourself. Many people balk at this idea and say, “But that’s just letting myself off the hook.” However, it doesn’t really work that way. By giving yourself kindness about your own mistakes, you give yourself permission to actually see the places in your life where you need to grow. Instead of beating yourself up internally over every minor flaw to the point that you don’t even want to look at them, self-kindness allows you to examine mistakes and realize that they are just opportunities for learning, and that you’re still a good person no matter how many times you mess up.

What an amazing way to give yourself permission to try something new, to take risks, to approach new people. If it doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped, it’s not a reflection on your own worth anymore. It’s just part of being human.

Which leads us to Common Humanity, the final component of self-compassion. Common Humanity means realizing that everyone on this beautiful Earth is just imperfect as you are. All of those mistakes and errors that you make, don’t make you different or wrong. All of those imperfections about your body or your character or your relationships actually make you the same as other people.

When we beat ourselves up about mistakes, it can lead to feeling outside of humanity. We can look around at other people and think things like, “Well, they have their lives together. What’s wrong with me?”

The answer is that there is nothing wrong with you at all, and those other people are making just as many mistakes as you are on a daily basis. Everyone is just doing the best that they can with the resources and knowledge that they have in the moment. Realizing this truth can feel like a great relief! You are not alone in your imperfection. Instead, your imperfection is what makes you just like everyone else.

A very simple way to start practicing self compassion in your own life is to make a self-compassion statement that incorporates all three components of self-compassion. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that you are in the middle of trying to learn something new, and in the process you do something that wasn’t as skillful as you would have liked. Perhaps your go to response to this situation would be to say something to yourself like, “Come on! You know better than that! Why can’t you get this right? You’re so stupid!”

Unfortunately, if you continue to speak to yourself this way, you will probably give up your new endeavor because continuing to try only to mess up makes you feel terrible about yourself.

This process of self-criticism keeps you from growing and expanding into new ways of being you. When you notice this happening using your mindfulness skills, don’t judge yourself for judging yourself and make things even worse. Instead, use your self compassion statement as follows.

“OK. I’m feeling stupid right now because I made a mistake, and I’m being hard on myself about it. However, making mistakes is OK. It’s actually what makes me human, just like everyone else.”

This self-compassion statement is brief. It only took a second or two to say, but it shifted the entire experience.

Let’s break this statement down into its three component parts.

  1. Mindfulness: Recognizing the emotion (feeling stupid) and the self-criticism that went along with it.
  2. Self-Kindness: Telling yourself that what happened is OK. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you because of what happened.
  3. Common Humanity: Reminding yourself that everyone goes through situations like these. These experiences are what make you the same as others, not what makes you different or unworthy.

Using these three components of self-compassion, you can formulate a self-compassion statement that works for you, in your own voice.

Sometimes, when people hear about self-compassion for the first time they think it’s selfish. They’ve been raised to believe that being kind to others is a good thing, but being kind to oneself is wrong, and perhaps even sinful. However, people that practice kindness to themselves are actually kinder to others. People that are mentally healthy are more able to care for others in the world. By being open-hearted to yourself, you will be more able to be open-hearted to others.

It will likely feel weird and uncomfortable at first. That’s OK. Everything new feels weird at first. Normal is simply what we’re used to.

That self-criticism pathway in your brain is likely so well-worn that it feels comfortable and easy to walk down it, even though it is harmful to you. Creating new pathways in the brain is difficult and takes a lot of work and practice, even when the new way of thinking is good for you and will make your life better in the long run. Don’t give up on being more self-compassionate just because it’s hard at first. Put in the work. It’s worth it. You’re worth it.

For more information on self compassion vs perfectionism, here are some links to check out:

Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion Website

TED Talk on the Dangers of Perfectionism

Link to Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection

Link to Kristin Neff’s Ted Talk on Self-Compassion 

Link to Kristin Neff’s book “Self-Compassion”

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