Sound familiar? Yeah…you’re a textbook perfectionist.
For some people, perfectionist tendencies can work, says Erica Hamilton, Ph.D, a psychologist at Octave, a mental health studio in New York City, which offers a drop-in “mindfulness for perfectionists” meditation I decided to check out one day on my lunch break. They’re able to still achieve their goals and actually feel motivated by that little voice in their head pushing them to be the very best. “But for many, it becomes quite paralyzing,” she says. People hold themselves back from pursuing their goals out of fear of coming up short, she says, or obsess over small details and mistakes.
“In a lot of ways, perfectionism is something people use to protect themselves,” says Dr. Hamilton. “There’s this mindset of, ‘If I’m perfect, I can’t be rejected and good things will happen. And I will be accepted and loved.’ It’s one of the ways people try to control their anxiety of things that are outside their control.” But again, that can come with more costs than benefits.
If you’ve been living with the perfectionist mindset your entire life, it might feel totally baked in your personality. But you may be overlooking two skills that could help you reframe your more problematic perfectionist thinking: compassion and gratitude.
Shifting your mental narrative
“Compassion really helps to undo all of the negativity perfectionism can provide,” says Nikki Carter, a mindfulness expert at Octave with a masters in psychology. (She also led the meditation I attended.) She says that perfectionism often comes with negative self-talk and the idea that you are not good enough—which chips away at your confidence and happiness (and leads to that paralyzed feeling Dr. Hamilton described). That inner compassionate voice, she says, is a skill that you have to work and develop like a muscle.
Dr. Hamilton agrees. “It’s important to show ourselves kindness and allow ourselves to be imperfect,” she says. “No one gets better through constant self-criticism.” She says you can practice replacing that negative self-talk by mentally congratulating yourself on your wins as they happen—to remind yourself on the reg about the great things about you and what you do.
“The mind can sometimes get conditioned to look for flaws. Gratitude really shifts what our search function is, looking for what we already have, already achieved, or already accomplished.” —Erica Hamilton, PhD
With compassion comes gratitude—another effective tool against perfectionism. “The mind can sometimes get conditioned to look for flaws,” says Dr. Hamilton. “Gratitude really shifts what our search function is, looking for what we already have, already achieved, or already accomplished.” In other words: “It’s actively looking for things that have gone well,” she says, rather than the things that have gone poorly.
The word gratitude might induce a major eye-roll (how 2016!) but Carter says you shouldn’t underestimate it. “There is so much research on gratitude showing that it can actually help undo negative mental health outcomes, lowering levels of depression, and increasing positivity and happiness,” she says. So anytime those perfectionist tendencies start creeping in, Carter says shifting your focus to the things for which you’re grateful can help reframe that narrative in your head.
How to put it into action
If you’re not sure exactly what this looks like, Carter suggests trying meditation. “A simple gratitude meditation works great, and I also think it’s important for people to not only meditate on what they’re grateful for, but the actions they did that played a hand in those things happening. That way, they see they had a direct role,” she says.
If meditation isn’t for you, Carter says that there are other ways to practice gratitude. “You can be mindful when you’re eating dinner, focusing on every single person who played a part with growing and making the food on your plate. Or you can be mindful on your commute to work, focusing on your breathing.” (You can also try these gratitude exercises at home.)
Like anything else that isn’t part of your regular thinking already, both Carter and Dr. Hamilton say that compassion and gratitude aren’t just feelings; they are skills that take practice. “Just remember that you are perfectly imperfect and doing the best you can,” Dr. Hamilton says. “That mantra is always there for you to come back to.”