Perfectionism, Excellence, Self-Kindness, and Self-Compassion
An Excerpt from Josh Hillis’s book, Lean and Strong
Perfectionism versus Excellence
There was really interesting research done on “positive perfectionism” versus “negative perfectionism.” They found there’s no such thing as positive perfectionism; perfectionism always has a negative outcome.[i] Perfectionism is about shame, negative self-evaluations, and concern for mistakes.[ii],[iii] Perfectionism is distinguished by quitting, and accompanied by lower wellbeing.[iv],[v],[vi]
You know people are perfectionist about their nutrition when any time they “blow their diet,” they quit for the rest of the week…or the rest of the month.[vii] Sometimes, they quit for the rest of the year. Their perfectionism results in practicing a lot of quitting.
On the other hand, let’s look at the pursuit of excellence. Pursuit of excellence is defined by practicing, making mistakes, and practicing more. This represents understanding that excellence requires making mistakes and learning from them. Pursuit of excellence means you keep practicing even after you make multiple mistakes, and continue to make mistakes.
With workouts, pursuit of excellence means doing what you can, whenever you can. Sometimes, that will be full workouts; other times, it’s half workouts. Sometimes it’s three workouts per week, and other times, it’s one or two. It’s continuing to get your workouts, even when those workouts aren’t as often or as long as you’d like.
The turning point is to notice when you’re having perfectionist thoughts. It’s okay to have perfectionist thoughts; you just don’t act on them by quitting. Notice those perfectionist thoughts, but continue to practice your eating skills and workout program anyway.
Perfectionism versus Self-Compassion
It turns out, the primary difference between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence is self-compassion.[viii] Self-compassion is what determines whether our pursuits will build us up or destroy us.
Perfectionism has everything to do with living in a fantasyland where we can do everything perfectly. It would be cool if that was possible, but we aren’t robots. We’re humans. Humans make mistakes. Humans feel bad. Humans are, by nature, imperfect.
Perfectionism is an unwillingness to do work when confronted with our own humanity. It’s abdicating responsibility every time we see evidence of being human.
Self-compassion is acknowledging it’s normal to make mistakes. It’s normal to have all kinds of emotions. It’s normal to have cravings. It’s normal to make mistakes. It’s normal to feel guilty about making mistakes.
Self-compassion is noticing that all of our judgments about ourselves are just thoughts; it’s noticing we’ve had judgmental thoughts, maybe for decades, and that it’s a habit. We know we don’t need to debate them; we don’t need to figure out if they’re true or false; we don’t need to fight or change them; and we don’t need repeat them and beat ourselves up. Self-compassion is noticing these are just thoughts and forgiving ourselves when they show up.
Self-compassion is continuing to practice our eating skills and workouts simply because they’re self-care.
Self-compassion is reminding ourselves that no matter how together everyone else looks on the outside, everyone has human issues. People have different easy and difficult things in their lives, but everyone has hard things. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re human.
Self-Kindness versus Self-Compassion
A common misconception about self-compassion is that it’s “letting yourself off of the hook.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes, but not always, self-kindness is letting yourself off the hook. Sometimes, self-kindness is a glass of wine after a long day at work—and sometimes, that’s totally appropriate.
Self-compassion is something else.
Where self-kindness can just be “treat yourself,” self-compassion is values-led behavior.
Self-compassion often includes the very hard work of coming to terms with our imperfections, experiencing normal human pain, knowing what really matters to us, and taking actions that take care of our well-being in the long term.
[i] Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2006). Positive versus negative perfectionism in psychopathology a comment on Slade and Owens’s dual process model. Behavior modification, 30(4), 472-495.
[ii] Fedewa, B. A., Burns, L. R., & Gomez, A. A. (2005). Positive and negative perfectionism and the shame/guilt distinction: Adaptive and maladaptive characteristics. Personality and individual differences, 38(7), 1609-1619.
[iii] Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review,10(4), 295-319.
[iv] Kobori, O., & Tanno, Y. (2005). Self-oriented perfectionism and its relationship to positive and negative affect: The mediation of positive and negative perfectionism cognitions. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29(5), 555-567.
[v] Andrews, D. M., Burns, L. R., & Dueling, J. K. (2014). Positive perfectionism: Seeking the healthy “should”, or should we?. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2(08), 27.
[vi] Egan, S., Piek, J., Dyck, M., & Kane, R. (2011). The reliability and validity of the positive and negative perfectionism scale. Clinical Psychologist, 15(3), 121-132.
[vii] Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. rigid dieting strategies: Relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295-305.
[viii] Ferrari, M., Yap, K., Scott, N., Einstein, D. A., & Ciarrochi, J. (2018). Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link in both adolescence and adulthood. PloS one, 13(2), e0192022.
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