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What Happens When We Let Go of Perfectionism?

comparison failure perfectionism self-compassion shame Jan 28, 2023
2 hands form a heart outlining the rising sun by Photo Mix of Pixabay

What is the opposite of perfectionism?

Many of us would probably say laziness or sloppiness. If perfectionism got us here to where we are, what we may have had to do was to compel ourselves to study more, to overperform, to work harder, rather than just relax on the couch as we may have wanted to do.

But if we consider that perfectionism is a mechanism for avoiding failure (and subsequent shame), then we can learn to see the opposite of this as self-compassion, as Brenè Brown, PhD, LMSW, chooses to do.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, she writes this about people she studied who are living what she considers a “wholehearted life:”

“First they spoke about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, and without shame or fear. Second, they were slow to judge themselves and others. They appear to operate from a place of “We’re all doing the best we can.” Their courage, compassion and connection seemed rooted in the way they treated themselves.”

In other words, these people were practicing self-compassion, in addition to compassion for others. And furthermore, they couldn’t really extend compassion to others, without extending it to themselves.

This idea, that we can’t truly be compassionate to others, without being compassionate towards ourselves, is something that we don’t talk about enough in medicine.  If I want to practice compassion towards my patients, in a truly honest way, then I also have to practice it towards myself.

Brenè spends whole chapters exploring this, so you don’t have to take my word for it (Read The Gifts of Imperfection and Rising Strong), but suffice it to say, if we decide not to argue (who doesn’t want more self-compassion?) and accept it, what do we need to know about self-compassion?

For this, we turn to another wonderful writer and Academic from Texas, Kristen Neff, PhD, who studies self-compassion. Her three fundamental components are: self kindness (especially in the face of hardship or failure), common humanity (we experience the same human emotions and difficulties that others face), and mindfulness (awareness of our emotions, and a practice of not over- or under-identifying with these emotions).

If it seems challenging to imagine perfectionism vs self-compassion, just consider how it would look in the face of losing a promotion. Perfectionism sends you into isolation, possibly denying that you wanted the promotion, perhaps gossiping about the person who did get the position, and certainly avoiding them. Self-compassion lets you share your disappointment with someone that you trust, and allows them to see and feel your disappointment. It allows you the vulnerability of having wanted something, and having taken a risk for that thing. Self-compassion is aware that it is painful not to have something that we want, but it also doesn’t condemn us to endless misery.

Can you see the potential impact of letting go of perfectionism to cultivate self-compassion? 

Human history teaches us that we all stumble. It’s necessary for us when we learn to walk!  The important question we must ask ourselves then becomes not “will I stumble,” but “how will I respond when I do stumble?”

What will you choose?

Hi There!

I'm Megan. I'm a Physician and a Life Coach and a Mom. I created this blog to help other Physicians and Physician-Moms learn more about why they feel exhausted, burned-out and overwhelmed, and how to start to make changes. I hope that you enjoy what you read, and that it helps you along your journey. And hey, if you want to talk about coaching with me, I'm here for that too! I offer a free 1:1 call to see if we are a good fit. Click the button below to register today.

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