Cultivating Self-Compassion

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” – Anna Quindlen

For someone who can oftentimes have an incredibly low amount of self-esteem, the nomenclature of being a “perfectionist” seems a bit ironic to me. Perfectionists, as the name would suggest, want everything they produce and put out into the world to be perfect – anything that is less than this standard is considered unacceptable to them. When they do fall short of perfect (as happens often, as perfection is an unachievable standard), the shame kicks in, telling them they aren’t good enough. For something called perfectionism, ironically enough, it often leads to feelings of being an incredibly imperfect person.

Feelings of perfectionism and shame operate cyclically, like most addictive habits. Feelings of shame, brought on from anywhere, lead to a mindset of, “I need to be perfect so as to improve my life,” which, when this goal inevitably falls short, leads to more shame, and the cycle begins anew. As Brené Brown puts it, “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.” Shame is where perfectionism stems from, and vice versa.

Many of those who have perfectionist attitudes, including myself, justify it with the guise of self-improvement. “By working to do the best I can at everything I do,” we might say, “I’m creating a good work ethic for myself.” The first glaring problem with this logic is that perfectionists are not simply satisfied with trying their best: their results must be the best. There is nothing wrong with trying your best in all you do – that’s a great thing. But beating yourself up when what you create or achieve isn’t actually the best is a dangerous way to live. It is for this reason that perfectionists are much less willing to take risks than others. The goal of perfection becomes even less attainable when it involves something new, so, “Why risk more disappointment?” By sticking to what they know, says the perfectionist, the chances for disappointment are substantially lower.

Brené says: “Perfectionism is, at its core, about getting approval from others.” I genuinely believe that most people out there, even the perfectionists, know that nobody is, nor ever will be perfect. I think that most people realize this, even if they’re at different levels of accepting it. This only lends strength to the argument that perfectionism is “other-focused.” Healthily striving to improve yourself is focused on self – how can I improve, so my life is more fulfilling? Perfectionism is based on others – what will they think?

At its heart, perfectionism is also about control, over yourself and what you put into the world. Something that cannot be controlled, no matter how hard we may try, is others’ perceptions of us. We can toil day and night to impress someone, but the fact of the matter is that there is always somebody who will see things differently than you, someone whose idea of perfect is light years away from yours. As such, perfectionism, along with making yourself infallible, is about making yourself liked by everyone around you – two utterly impossible goals. Shame is inevitable in the pursuit of perfection.

Your biggest tool in the battle against perfectionism is self-compassion. Being kind to yourself is understanding that you are only human, and as humans we are, by our very nature, makers of mistakes. Self-compassion is the middle ground between ignoring your mistakes, and blowing them out of proportion, à la perfectionism. See your shortcomings and learn from them, but forgive yourself for them. Don’t shame yourself for what you’ve done imperfectly, embrace it, and use that experience to help you in the future.

With this attitude, it’s easier to be less judgmental of others as well. To accept that you’re a human who makes mistakes, is to realize (and subsequently accept) that we’re all humans who make mistakes. As completely cliché as it is to say that we’re all “perfectly imperfect,” I believe it to be true. “Human being” and “flawless” are not two phrases that belong together in the same sentence.

This attitude adjustment doesn’t happen overnight – it takes practice. Many of us are raised on values that, to different degrees, encourage us to strive for as close to perfect as we can reach, the whole “good enough isn’t good enough” mantra. The best you can do is good enough, but it doesn’t have to be the best. It’s hard to break out of a mindset that’s oftentimes instilled into us at an early age, but it is possible, and it’s worth it.

We’ve all heard the phrase “nobody is perfect,” so which should that not include you or me? You don’t need to be perfect to be good, and quite frankly, I’d rather have someone call me a “good person” than a “perfect person.” By practicing self-compassion, you will come to realize, you aren’t just good enough, you’re good.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Add: Much of the inspiration for this series of posts comes from Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., a writer and researcher who has written multiple books on shame and courage. Her TED talks are available on her website, and she’s also available on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I would highly suggest checking out her work.

Her website

Her Twitter

Your Imperfect Self (Introduction)

If I were to ask you to define the word courageous, what would you tell me? Would you perhaps give me some examples of individuals who, despite any fear, risk their lives for the greater good? Or, some smaller-scale examples, such as overcoming a fear of public speaking and giving a speech in front of a crowd?

The word courage is rooted from cor, the Latin word for heart. The original definition of courage was, “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Heroic acts are indeed courageous, but not all courageous acts have to be that of heroism.

Everyone wants to be courageous. We all have our own ideas of what constitutes a courageous act, but true courage lies not necessarily in risking one’s life, but in risking one’s heart. How do we risk our heart? We embrace who we are and what we’re supposed to be, and refuse to let others dictate what we should say, how we should look and, most importantly, how we should feel. To risk one’s heart is to be vulnerable at its most innate definition – we open up everything about who we are.

Our society is one of chameleons; we are experts at fitting in where we think we need to. We can alter our personalities to suit the situation we’re in, saying some things and holding others back. When we do this, we swap out one mask for another, wearing whichever one will get us through the situation with the least amount of collateral damage – without hurting others or ourselves. What’s more, this is encouraged by our society. We are told time and time again to put others before ourselves, and while this is a noble goal, the way we’re told to do this is ultimately self-destructive. Put your true self away, and bring out the you that can make it through this situation with no harm done to others. You may forget yourself in the process, but it’s okay, everyone does it.

So, if we take the concept of being vulnerable and being chameleons, they butt heads. We cannot be ourselves at every turn and please everyone. On the flipside, we cannot please everyone, but also be true to who we are as a person. E.E. Cummings once wrote,

“To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

In order to truly deepen human connection and find a love for yourself, it is completely necessary to be vulnerable. It isn’t optional. To be anything less than vulnerable is to be a chameleon once more – putting on the color scheme that will please others, and “switching it up” as need be. Compared to what I’m asking you to do, being a chameleon is incredibly easy. It takes the “no harm, no foul” approach of making it through situations, quick and easy. In return, however, you sacrifice meaningful connections and a sense of peace with yourself and who you truly are.

No, being vulnerable isn’t easy. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, unnerving, and, like many good habits, is very hard to stick with. Even the word itself, vulnerable, has a stigma attached to it – to be “vulnerable” is to leave yourself open to attack. Being a chameleon, when it comes down to it, is as much about protecting yourself as it is pleasing others.

It’s tough, there’s no getting around that. But how do you learn how to ride a bike? You practice riding a bike. How do you study for a test? You look over your materials, and practice your knowledge of it. How do you learn to be vulnerable? You practice being vulnerable. You learn courage by being courageous.

Great, you say. I’d love to be vulnerable. I’d love to be courageous and my true self and all of that cheesy stuff, but there’s one thing getting in the way. One large, looming, intimidating obstacle that stands in the way of pushing against the grain:

Shame.

The very first thing that anyone needs to understand about shame is this: everyone experiences it. Shame is a real and powerful human emotion, and the only ones who can’t feel shame are those who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Shame keeps us from being vulnerable by convincing us that, when people see our true selves, they won’t like what they see. While guilt is your mind saying, “I did something bad,” shame is your mind saying, “am bad.” Our true selves aren’t enough of what other people want to see, so we fall into the chameleon mindset – “I’ll become who they want me to be.”

That isn’t what our lives are about. We don’t live our lives for others, and so we shouldn’t live our lives according to others, despite what society sees fit to tell us. But shame is the single biggest factor in preventing us from doing just that. So, the obvious answer is to combat this shame.

How? The same way we open ourselves to being vulnerable: we practice. We build ourselves up to be shame-resilient, and work to convince our mind as best we can that those feelings won’t have nearly as much as an effect on us and how we live our own lives. In order to do this, we need to let go of certain mindsets that have been ingrained in our society to further support the chameleon mindset. And, in my upcoming posts, that’s what I hope to elaborate on.

To love ourselves and others is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be courageous. To be courageous is to be vulnerable, despite the fear of shame threatening to push us back to our chameleon ways. If we combat shame, the rest will fall into place. Over the next ten-or-so posts, I want to go into more detail about certain things that invite shame into our lives and therefore, discourage being our true selves.

All of these concepts are things that I struggle with, and I know too well that many, many others do as well. I would love for you to join me on this journey of reaching a point of self compassion and love. As always, if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or anything else, feel free to post a comment or use the contact form on my site to send me an email and I will always get back to you. Ideally, my next post on the subject will be up in a few days’ time, but life is unpredictable, so if it takes a bit longer, I apologize! I always look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and hearing some of your own.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Add: Much of the inspiration for this upcoming series of posts comes from Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., a writer and researcher who has written multiple books on shame and courage. Her TED talks are available on her website, and she’s also available on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I would highly suggest checking out her work.

Her website

Her Twitter