Self-compassion can fight perfectionism! “Be kind to one another.”
You don’t need to be a die-hard Ellen DeGeneres fan to appreciate the value of that motto. And while we’re reminded how kindness goes a long way in our everyday interactions with others, we often forget to apply it to those who need it most: ourselves.
Whether it’s setting a personal weight-loss goal or believing that we can ace a final exam—all of us are familiar with the experience of setting high standards. We’re even more familiar with the inevitable let-down that comes from not living up to those very standards.
Enter, the life of a perfectionist.
But, importantly, not all perfectionists operate the same. There are different types that are associated with different psychological outcomes.
On the one hand, if you strive to attain your ambitious goals and prevent yourself from being overly self-critical, you might be a personal strivings perfectionist. This isn’t so bad. In fact, this type of perfectionism is more likely to lead to relatively higher levels of self-esteem and decreased levels of negative affect.
On the other hand, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough, if you judge yourself by your shortcomings, and if you are constantly worried that other people won’t approve of you, then you might be more on the side of maladaptive perfectionism. This form of perfectionism has been linked to depressive symptoms in both adolescents and adults.
It’s no wonder then that researchers are curious to know more about interventions that help buffer against this maladaptive perfectionism.
In one recent study, researchers examined the possibility that self-compassion can protect us against the negative effects of maladaptive perfectionism.
The questions is, can self-directed kindness increase our chances of living a full, healthy life? Can it combat the symptoms of depression that come from this less ideal version of perfectionism?
You may ask, “What exactly is self-compassion? And is it something that can be cultivated by anyone, or is a skill that is only available to some of us?” To shed some light on these questions, researchers have broken down self-compassion into three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
While the first component is self-explanatory, the other two require careful consideration. When something terrible happens to us, often the initial reaction is to sit and wallow in our grief and self-pity. We convince ourselves that no one else is going through similar problems in their lives. But that is simply not true. Statistically speaking, it’s an erroneous judgment.
In order to be more accepting of ourselves, we need to realize that we are never as alone and isolated as we think we are. This is at the heart of common humanity.
At the same time, many of us are prone to over-analyzing painful experiences or trying to avoid negative feelings altogether. Mindfulness then, is about acknowledging our thoughts, feelings, and emotions without judgement, and accepting them as part of the common human experience.
Back to our study. Taking into account these three sub-components, the researchers in the present investigation set out to predict that self-compassion would weaken the relationship between perfectionism and depression in both adolescent and adult populations.
541 adolescents from grades 7 to 10 were recruited for the first study. Participants were asked to complete three online questionnaires during school hours, as part of a larger well-being intervention study. The questionnaires tapped into perfectionism, mood/feelings, self-worth and self-esteem, as well as reported self-compassion.
As predicted, self-compassion was found to moderate, or weaken, the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression in this sample of adolescents. Next, the researchers wanted to see if the results would hold for adults.