How to Practice Self-Compassion to Combat Perfectionism
Whether it be from our friends, family, or broader community, we are bombarded on a constant basis by cues to be more than what we currently are. Although there is certainly adaptive utility in this, these pressures can make us painfully aware of our insufficiencies and lead to the development of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in and of itself, is not necessarily pathological. Healthy perfectionists establish and strive for realistic goals. In contrast, maladaptive perfectionists establish and strive for unrealistic goals while having a preoccupation with a fear of failure, excessive orderliness, and social admiration.¹ Research also suggests that maladaptive perfectionism may act as a precursor to depression.² Self-compassion, on the other hand, is a mode of being that is gaining popularity in academic circles as an effective countermeasure for maladaptive perfectionism.
Self-compassion can be understood as ‘being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience.’³ Based on data collected from questionnaires measuring self-compassion,³ perfectionism,⁴⁻⁵ and depression,⁶⁻⁷ maladaptive perfectionists that scored high in self-compassion experienced fewer symptoms of depression compared to those that scored lower in the same construct.⁸ This suggests that it is perhaps not the presence of perfectionistic thoughts that leads to depression but the way in which one reacts to them that that does. The following paragraph provides an example of how you can practice self-compassion in your own life.
Say, for instance, you have made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. You work out twice a week and abstain from your usual slice of chocolate cake after work but noticed upon weighing yourself this morning that you gained 2 pounds. A thought may arise in your head saying “I am never good enough.” You may respond by saying “that’s because you never try hard enough." In doing so, you are exacerbating the problem’s severity by conflating your sense of self with this single incident. Alternatively, you could think to yourself “failure is an inevitable part of life and does not define who I am. Let’s think back to what I did this week and see how I can improve.” In this instance, you recognize that failure is an experience shared by all which enables you to develop a healthy distance between your sense of self and your weight. This impersonal attitude allows you to more objectively assess the problem at hand and how you can overcome it.
Adler, A. (1956). The neurotic disposition. In H. L. Ansbacher & R. R. Ansbacher (Eds.), The individual psychology of Alfred Adler (pp. 239-262). New York: Harper.
Sherry, S. B., Nealis, L. J., Macneil, M. A., Stewart, S. H., Sherry, D. L., & Smith, M. M. (2013). Informant reports add incrementally to the understanding of the perfectionism–depression connection: Evidence from a prospective longitudinal study. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(8), 957–960. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.01.002
Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223–250. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309027
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., Besser, A., Su, C., Vaillancourt, T., Boucher, D., & Gale, O. (2016). The child–adolescent perfectionism scale: Development, psychometric properties, and associations with stress, distress, and psychiatric symptoms. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 34(7), 634–652. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282916651381
Frost, R.O., Marten, P., & Lahart, C. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449–468. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01172967
Sharp, C., Goodyer, I. M., & Croudace, T. J. (2006). The short mood and feelings questionnaire (SMFQ): A unidimensional item response theory and categorical data factor analysis of self-report ratings from a community sample of 7-through 11-year-old children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34(3), 365–377. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-006-9027-x
Lovibond, S. H., & Lovibond, P. F. (1995). Manual for the depression anxiety stress scales (2nd ed.). Sydney, N.S.W: Psychology Foundation of Australia.
Ferrari, M., Yap, K., Scott, N., Einstein, D. A., & Ciarrochi, J. (2018). Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link in both adolescence and adulthood. PloS One, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192022