Imagine two perfectionists. When Estella feels that she’s fallen short of her standards, she puts more pressure on herself to succeed. She tries to raise her self-esteem through more success.
Coco, on the other hand, deals with falling short of her perfectionistic standards by comforting herself with compassion, and remembering that it’s just her humanity kicking in.
These are two very different approaches to life, even though they’re both perfectionists.
And it makes a world of difference.
Estella is vulnerable to crashes in her self-worth. She might become narcissistic if she tries to deal with falling short by comparing herself to others.
Coco is much more resilient and has higher self-worth. She’s more likely to succeed at her long term goals because her motivation doesn’t tank when she falls short.
This distinction is not unique to them. Research is helping us to understand that, for all of us, self-compassion is a more effective strategy for achieving well-being. It’s not just a self-serving meme for weaker people.
The Difference Between Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem
I recently came across a study that investigated the different ways that self-esteem and self-compassion affect depression. Before I report on their conclusions, let me explain the difference.
Self-compassion is unconditional and is characterized by:
• Being open to and moved by our own suffering
• Relating to our suffering with comfort and kindness
• Adopting an understanding and nonjudgmental attitude toward our inadequacies and failures
• Recognizing that our own experience of imperfection is part of the common human experience
Self-esteem is conditional and is characterized by:
• Need for consistent achievement at expense of well-being
• Severe fluctuations in mood
• May rely on competitive comparisons
Most of us believe that self-esteem helps us to feel good. There is some truth to this. But achieving and sustaining self-esteem can just as well cause problems. When we don’t succeed as we feel we should, the self-esteem that had us flying high yesterday takes a nose-dive into the valley of depression.
Self-compassion is unconditional and buoys us even when we don’t feel successful. Self-worth is much more stable when based on self-compassion than it is when based on self-esteem.
Self-Compassion Moderates Levels of Depression in Perfectionists
According to the study I mentioned above, if you rely on self-compassion, it will diminish how much your maladaptive perfectionism can depress you. If you rely on self-esteem, you are more vulnerable to depression.
This is a particularly important finding for people with obsessive-compulsive personality because their tendency to try to do things perfectly eclipses self-compassion, and even eclipses the goals they originally set. Their perfectionistic tendencies are hijacked to prove their worth, rather than being enlisted in the service of their passions. And this is one reason that they experience depression so frequently.
The capacity to use self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, to navigate life, may be the main difference between healthy compulsives and unhealthy compulsives.
Self-compassion doesn’t completely prevent depression in people who have maladaptive perfectionism, so we still need to work on making our perfectionism more adaptive, as I point out in this previous post on healthy perfectionism.
If you’re curious about how your self-compassion and self-esteem measure up (irony intended), you can take a self-compassion test here.
Why Have Self-Compassion?
But why should I have compassion for myself?
I’m tempted to enlist your guilt complex and tell you that it’s your job to take care of yourself directly. It is. But let’s not go there because it’s just going to enflame your perfectionism.
A different strategy is to base self-compassion on who you are, rather than what you do. After all, we are human beings, not human doings. And virtually all of us can say that we’re basically good.
While this perspective is valid, I also know that perfectionists can always find something they didn’t do just right which makes them think that their character is fundamentally flawed, and therefore undeserving of this fundamental respect as a human being.
So we need to put one basic fact in place to get over that misconception, one which I hope will appeal to your compulsive soul: self-compassion is the most considerate, effective, and fulfilling way to help you deliver what you’re capable of.
Simply put, self-compassion works.
Isn’t This Self-Indulgent?
Really? Isn’t this just an opening for selfishness, laziness, and mediocrity?
In an interview for The Atlantic, Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who has posed questions like this in more studies than you could shake a stick at, has reached this conclusion:
“[T]he research is pretty clear now. All the fears we have of self-compassion are pretty much based on misconceptions. And the research shows the opposite. Self-compassion helps you be motivated, it helps you take responsibility. It’s not self-indulgent, it’s not selfish, it leads to better relationships. I find it’s quite remarkable how much research there is supporting these ideas.”
It’s not an invitation to a pity because it sees our imperfection and suffering as part of the human condition. You’re not alone in it.
And it enables you to take on those more noble goals you fear forgetting.
Just as one example of how this works, self-compassion can release the hormone oxytocin, calm you, and help you deal with the problems around you. (For the hard-core science, click here.) Once you’re taking better care of yourself, you can consider and respond to the needs of others more consciously and naturally, not in a pressured way that leads to resentment and burnout.
Self-acceptance will actually help you to get up and move forward, rather than make you a permanent fixture on your couch.
But how can we switch gears after trying to deal with life by using self-esteem rather than self-compassion for all these years?
There is no easy answer, but there are steps you can take.
It’s helpful to have a therapist, an actual human being, who interrupts the cycle of trying to prove yourself worthy with perfection all the time. Someone who will see and reflect who you are objectively. Someone who can model acknowledging flaws along with acceptance. The human psyche is built to learn through connection with others. That’s part of what makes therapy powerful.
We can also channel our natural, compulsive determination into improving our well-being. We can set a goal to put self-compassion before perfectionism. Specifically, you can:
1. Uncover Resistances: What are your unconscious blocks to self-compassion?
• Do you feel that you don’t deserve it?
• Does suffering make you feel like you’re a good person?
• If you got happy, would it let the people who have hurt you off the hook?
• Do you fear never working hard again and not being able to prove your worth?
2. Change Your Mindset: Empathically acknowledge the suffering that perfectionism causes you.
• Systematically replace “fixing” with self-acceptance and compassion for yourself whenever you have that “uh-oh” feeling that something is off.
• Note: This is a radically different mindset than the one you’re probably used to. If it doesn’t feel like a major shift, you may not be getting it yet.
3. Alter Your Behavior: Actively be kinder to yourself when you aren’t perfect.
• Don’t treat yourself badly.
• Reduce pressure to perform.
• Don’t rush. Monitor and check your urgency.
4. Re-Join the Human Race: Forgive yourself for your limitations by remembering it’s part of being human.
• Trying to be superhuman causes you suffering because you’re not.
• Remember that one of the best baseball players ever, Ty Cobb, only got to base a little more than a third of the time.
The Practice of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion takes practice. I mean this literally. We need repetition and persistence to develop new neural wiring to over-ride the old wiring. We gently re-train the mind to take the compassionate route and speak to ourselves more kindly.
This is one reason why many people practice mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation daily. They exercise the capacity to be accepting every time their mind wanders so that when they aren’t meditating it’s become a habit.
But you can practice it in many situations. This is one of the reasons I love to play tennis. Every time I miss a shot I get the opportunity to apply self-compassion. This happens pretty often.
Whenever faced with a problem, first apply compassion, rather than more determination to get “better.” Even if it seems silly or trivial. At this point the content is irrelevant. It’s the process that counts.
Practice: empathy first.
Example: What Matthew Would Need to Do
Let’s imagine an example of how this would actually play out in real life.
Matthew has strong feelings about the way things should be done at his job. He’s determined to do them the right way, even if the company doesn’t support or expect that level of perfection. As do many compulsives, he has demand sensitivity—he assumes that people expect more of him than they actually do. Demand sensitivity is dangerous when combined with perfectionism.
He ends up working late, at odds with his co-workers, exhausted, ill, and resentful at working so hard.
Matthew isn’t a touchy-feely guy. He’s suspicious of the idea of self-compassion. It’s too soft. But, being a practical guy, he’s also willing to consider that his methods aren’t working.
To remedy the situation, Matthew would need to:
1. Observe and acknowledge, with empathy, the suffering he causes himself when he prioritizes perfection over how he feels, physically and emotionally. He needs to drop the negative self-talk he uses to punish himself in the hope that it would help him to be perfect.
2. He would need to understand the function maladaptive perfectionism has played for him.
3. Remember that there is research that says that what he’s been doing is ineffective. It’s illogical because it doesn’t work well over time.
4. Actively put his own well-being before the degree of perfection he’s been trying to achieve at his job. This means stopping work earlier and consistently releasing the tension he carries in his chest and arms.
5. When others inevitably block him from perfection with their sloppiness, empathically focus on his own feeling of frustration, rather than what they are doing wrong.
6. Accept that as a member of the human race, he too has limitations and will make mistakes. And that’s okay.
Making this change would be scary for him, because his life strategy has been to convince himself and others that he has worth because he works so hard to get everything just right. It means taking the risk that others may not be so impressed with him. In reality, it will improve his relationships because they will be more authentic: they won’t be built on the strategy of trying to control how they think about him.
And, at least important, he can live in relative peace while pursuing his passions.