How to be less self-critical when perfectionism is a trap

Yuxin Sun, a psychologist in Seattle, sees many clients in her associate practice who insist they are not perfectionists. “'Oh, I'm not perfect. I'm far from perfect,'” they tell her.

But perfectionism isn't about being the best at a certain goal, Dr. Sun said, “it's the feeling of never getting to that point, of never feeling good enough, of never feeling adequate.” And this can create a harsh inner voice that belittles and chastises us.

Perfectionism is so pervasive that there is a test to measure it: the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. When researchers examined how college students responded to the scale's questions over time, they found that rates of perfectionism have increased in recent decades, skyrocketing between 2006 and 2022.

Thomas Curran, an associate professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science who conducted the analysis, said that the fastest-rising type of perfectionism – socially prescribed perfectionism – was rooted in the belief that others expect you to be perfect. Today's young person is more likely to score much higher on this measure than someone who took the test decades ago. The causes of this increase could be multiple: the increase in parental expectations, school pressures, the ubiquity of influencers on social media and advertising.

Feelings of not being good enough or that “my current life circumstances are inadequate or not sufficient” has created an “unrelenting treadmill,” Dr. Curran said, where there is “no joy in success and a lot of self-criticism ”.

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a perfectionist, experts say there are a number of little things you can try to keep your inner critic in check.

Ethan Kross, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness It,” said a process called distancing is his “first line of defense” against the negativities. thoughts.

Distancing is a way to reduce our internal chatter to interact with it differently. If you're agonizing over something in the middle of the night, for example, it's a signal to “jump into the mental time travel machine,” she said.

Start by imagining: “How will you feel tomorrow morning?” Anxieties often seem less severe in the light of day.

The time period could also be further into the future. Will the fact that you stumbled a few times during your big presentation today really matter three months from now?

Another way to practice distancing is to avoid self-talk when thinking about something that upsets you.

Instead of saying: “I can't believe I made this mistake. It was so stupid of me,” someone might get a new perspective by saying: “Christina, you made a mistake. You feel bad about it right now. But you won't feel this way forever. And your mistake is something that has happened to many other people.

In Dr. Kross's research, he found that when people used the word “you” or their own name instead of saying “I” and began observing their feelings as if they were impartial spectators, “it was like flipping a switch.” The result was a more constructive and positive internal dialogue than that of people talking to themselves in person. Numerous studies have reported similar benefits of taking a more detached point of view.

Dr. Curran, who writes about his own struggles in his book “The Perfection Trap,” explained that he has worked to embrace “good enough” over perfectionism and the negative thoughts that accompany it.

With perfectionism it can feel like nothing is ever “enough.” Accepting what is “good enough” requires letting go, Dr. Curran said. Working nights, weekends and holidays had become part of his identity, but after the birth of his son she reduced his hours, which became “liberating”.

His decisions in the past were driven by an anxious need to improve himself, he added. Now, when he thinks about how to spend his time, he tries to focus on the things that give him joy, purpose and meaning.

It's a philosophy shared by Canadian physician and trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté, who said in a recent podcast that the feeling of being entitled or worthy must come from within, to prevent people from “sacrificing their playfulness, their joy” for external validation. .

In general, perfectionism is usually a survival strategy: It's “like armor you wear” to make you feel less vulnerable, Dr. Sun said. So don't beat yourself up for having perfectionistic tendencies, he added.

But if that armor is weighing you down, it may be time to thank your perfectionism for its service and move on, just as home organizer Marie Kondo does when discarding her possessions, Dr. Sun said.

“Maybe you can take your arms off first,” he said, then work on metaphorically taking your legs off. You may want to seek out a mental health professional to help you with the process.

“A lot of times I work with people to build that internal safety,” which is the ability to give yourself the validation you need to feel calm and at peace, Dr. Sun said, so that one day they can say to themselves: “ I accept the way I am today, versus the way I 'should' be.

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