Perfectionism & Self-Compassion

Perfectionism is self-defeating and harmful, and its antidote is self-compassion. Learn about the dangers of perfectionism and how to manage it.

Just a heads up that we get into some serious topics in this episode, so if you’re listening around young kids, you may want to use headphones. 


Melia has a For the Record about our last episode. In Episode 24: The Shame File, we talked a lot about Dr. Brené Brown, an author and research professor at the University of Houston who has studied courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy for two decades.

We talked about her viral TEDx talk in passing, but Melia wanted to mention it by name – The Power of Vulnerability – and say that it’s currently the fourth most popular TED talk of all time. She’s spoken about the major vulnerability hangover after she gave it and how she worried that hundreds of people would see it. Then millions did. Brown’s recent Netflix special, The Call to Courage, is also funny and poignant and inspiring. Watch them both!

We also want to strongly encourage you to share your feedback on the podcast with us. It fuels us to know what resonates with you, and it helps us give you more of it, so drop us a quick note to tell us. If you’re like us, you think of something while driving, running, cleaning, etc. and forget – or want to write the perfect email – but we just want to hear from you.

Share how what we’re talking about shows up for you and how you manage it, or something that made you think, or made you laugh. You can email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com or leave a comment on our most recent Facebook or Instagram post, no matter what the topic. Thank you!

Perfectionism & Self-Compassion

We do a deep dive into perfectionism: why it’s so dangerous, and how we can manage it.

In our culture, we often talk about perfectionism like it’s a positive character trait. The classic example is answering the dreaded job interview question, “What’s your biggest weakness?” with “I’m a perfectionist,” as a way to show how hardworking and attentive you are. But perfectionism is actually damaging and dangerous.

5 Things You Need to Know About Perfectionism

1. Research shows that perfectionism is on the rise.

An excellent 2018 BBC article looked at a recent meta-analysis by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, the first study to compare perfectionism across generations. The author of the article, Amanda Ruggeri, who is a perfectionist herself, writes:

“The average college student last year was much more likely to have perfectionistic tendencies than a student in the 1990s or early 2000s. The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential.”

2. Perfectionism is self-defeating.

Making and admitting mistakes is an essential part of growing and learning. This process makes you better at your career, relationships, and life in general.

“By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals,” Ruggeri writes.

3. Perfectionism is dangerous.

Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a long list of issues: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, chronic fatigue disorder, insomnia, even early mortality.

Faced with failure, “perfectionists tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. They experience more guilt, more shame,” says Hill. Perfectionists also give up more easily and have “quite avoidant coping tendencies when things can’t be perfect.”

Avoidant and escapist behavior can mean addictive behaviors that dull the senses – “buffering” by numbing, or taking the edge off, with food, social media, alcohol, etc. Brené Brown says she is a self-described “take the edge off-aholic.“ We all do this at times, but it is dangerous when it gets in the way of authenticity or real life. When we numb the dark, we also numb the light and take the edge off joy.

The most intense avoidance and escapist behavior is suicide. You may not think to associate it with perfectionism, but in the longitudinal study, every perfectionistic tendency – including simply having high personal standards – was correlated with thinking about suicide more frequently (called “suicidal ideation”). Perfectionism generally casts a pall over every experience and holds you back from being productive and satisfied because nothing is ever perfect.

4. Perfectionism is different than being conscientious or having high personal standards.

It’s about unrealistic, unachievable standards.

Ruggeri writes: “Take the student who works hard and gets a poor mark. If she tells herself: “I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,” that’s healthy conscientiousness. If the message is: “I’m a failure. I’m not good enough,” that’s perfectionism.”

It’s when you feel guilt, shame, anger, or shut down and avoid or quit when things can’t be perfect – when it gets in the way of the success you want to achieve.

5. Perfectionism and performance anxiety are often intertwined in children and teenagers.

The common places this shows up are in sports and school. Hill has found that the single biggest predictor of success in sports is simply practice. But if practice isn’t going well, perfectionists might stop.

Ruggeri writes: “It makes me think of my own childhood peppered with avoiding (or starting and quitting) almost every sport there was. If I wasn’t adept at something almost from the get-go, I didn’t want to continue – especially if there was an audience watching.”

For perfectionists, performance is tied up in their sense of self, which can lead to shame if they don’t do well.

How Perfectionism Shows Up for Us

Perfectionism has shown up in both of our lives since childhood. This tweet cracked us up and struck a chord because school played a big role in magnifying our tendencies.

For Gill, perfectionism stops her from starting things, for fear they won’t live up to her unrealistic standards. It can make her take too long to do things and get frustrated in the process. And if she’s not immediately good at something, she’s unlikely to continue doing it.

For Melia, perfectionism can cause her to be hard on herself and others, sometimes taking things too seriously and missing out on experiences. Over the years, it has prevented her from going after her big goals and contributed to stress, anxiety, depression, workaholism, and other negative habits.

5 Strategies to Overcome Perfectionism

1. Start with self-compassion.

We have talked about the importance of self-compassion before – in Episode 18: How Our Language Shapes Our Reality and Episode 22: Why We Procrastinate & What to Do About It. Research shows that self-compassion is one of the most effective protections against anxiety and depression – and it’s something perfectionists lack. Self-criticism, on the other hand, predicts depression.

Self-compassion is the antidote to perfectionism. Psychologist and researcher Kristen Neff says that we have to show ourselves compassion before we can extend it to others.

Try taking a self-compassion break with the three components Neff recommends:

1. Self-kindness: show ourselves gentle understanding instead of harsh judgment
2. Common humanity: recognize we’re all part of the imperfect human family. We’re connected to others and not alone in our experiences.
3. Mindfulness: take a balanced approach to our negative thoughts and emotions, so we’re not suppressing them, but we’re also not exaggerating them. Be aware of pain we’re experiencing without getting swept away by it.

2. Practice gratitude.

Incorporate gratitude practices into your day, such as:

  • Gratitude journaling: write down three good things that happened every day
  • Dinnertime gratitude: go around the table and share something you’re grateful for
  • The glad game: list things you’re glad about (it helps if you have someone to take turns with)
  • Use this Thich Nhat Hanh quote as a mantra: “It helps to ask, what’s NOT wrong?”

3. Aim for good enough.

Perfectionism cultivates an “all or nothing” attitude, that something is perfect or it’s worthless. Of course this isn’t true and gets in the way of having enjoyable experiences or accomplishing things that are just satisfactory. Striving for perfection can mean that you never finish a task, or that you don’t even start it in the first place.

Ask yourself what “good enough” would look like – for that family outing or that first draft or that morning workout –and aim for that. Allow yourself to be bad at things. Remember that perfection doesn’t exist, and reaching that “good enough” level will feel far better than not doing it at all.

For parents, model good behavior by watching our own perfectionistic tendencies, and exhibit unconditional love and affection.

4. Channel perfectionism into conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness is one of The Big Five core personality traits in the OCEAN model of personality. (OCEAN is an acronym for: Openness, Consciousness, Extraversion, Agreeability and Neuroticism.)

Conscientiousness is generally correlated with positive outcomes, like good health, productivity, work satisfaction and healthy relationships. It helps you be prepared, meet commitments to others, or take responsibility for problems.

But if you go too far into conscientiousness, you are at risk for perfectionism. If you have perfectionist tendencies, work on shifting back toward conscientiousness instead. Indulge those tendencies just enough to get your fix without getting in your way.

5. Cultivate play and laughter.

Brené Brown says that in her research, she kept trying to figure out what people who live wholeheartedly were doing. And she noticed that they hung out and did fun things, finally recognizing this as play.

She says for some of us, “We’ve got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress.” She suggests making an “ingredients for joy and meaning” list, a list of things in place when it feels like things are going well in your life.

We highly recommend Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, which has 10 evidence-based guideposts to help you “let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are,” as the subtitle says. We’ve drawn from some of these for these strategies.

Listener Takeaways

Those strategies again are:

1. Start with self-compassion.

2. Practice gratitude.

3. Aim for good enough.

4. Channel perfectionism into conscientiousness.

5. Cultivate play and laughter.

Get It Together / Got It Together

We each share something that’s going well for us at the moment, and something else that we’d like to work on.

Melia Get It Together: Letting her tires get too low, then realizing she had to deal with it on a busy day

Melia Got It Together: Filling said tires with air at the gas station

Gill’s Get It Together: Letting the time change get to her

Gill’s Got It Together: Having a good active week, going to the gym and on a hike

Get In Touch

How does perfectionism show up in your life? What helps you overcome it? Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com, or send us a voice memo. You can also leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram.

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