Many of the clients in my psychotherapy practice come to see me for depression and anxiety caused by self-criticism and negative self-talk. I have discovered that these clients are caught in the trap of perfectionism. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology (Stoeber & Childs 2010) as “a personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”
From a Buddhist perspective, perfectionism is kept in place by an attachment to the “self” as a separate, unique and real entity. In addition, forgetting that we are human beings living in samsara (the endless cycle of birth, old age, sickness and death and its attendant suffering) further solidifies perfectionism.
Human beings in the “human realm” of samsara all experience anger or aversion, jealousy, grasping, ignorance or lack of understanding and pride – known in Buddhism as the “five poisons.” Those with perfectionistic tendencies forget this, and believe that they are uniquely deficient when they experience these afflictions. Some feel so much shame, or have such a strong need for others’ approval that they try to hide behind a mask of perfectionism – covering up mistakes rather than owning up to and learning from them, overindulging in food, drugs or sex to numb the pain, giving in to others’ needs rather than expressing their own.
Instead of trying to deny or hide imperfections, acknowledging them mindfully can lessen perfectionism’s control. The first step is to mindfully notice your thoughts of self-judgment. The goal is to acknowledge those thoughts as soon as they arise and then let them go, dispassionately and without judgment. It takes a lot of practice not to get caught in the web of those thoughts.
One important tool in overcoming perfectionism or other dysfunctional tendencies is to recognize where you feel the associated feelings in your body. For example, if you experience jealousy, you might feel a hot, tight sensation in your chest. Exploring the sensation further, you discover that it would be red if it had a color, oval if it had a shape, and about two inches long if it had a size. Precisely describing the bodily feeling, as in the above example, is very effective in recognizing and letting go of self-critical thoughts as soon as they arise.
Then, breathe into that physical place with compassion, instead of immediately trying to avoid the feeling. You can’t turn it off like turning off the radio, and the more you try, the more intense it becomes. In the vernacular of the ‘70s human potential movement, “what you resist persists.” As you breathe out, breathe out light and space.
Continuing to breathe in and out in this way leads naturally to the Buddhist practice of tonglen, or sending and receiving – taking in the heavy, dark negative feelings, and sending out light, spacious healing feelings. This practice is first done for oneself, and then extended to all beings who suffer from perfectionism’s grip.
The benefits of this practice to counteract perfectionism are many and powerful. First is the engendering of compassion for oneself and one’s human foibles. Extending this compassion out to all who are suffering from perfectionism leads naturally to knowing that you are not alone, separate and distinct from all others.
We are perfect in our imperfection. Acknowledging and leaning into our imperfections with compassion and without judgment leads to tenderness and openness. As Leonard Cohen sang, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”