Perfectionism

  • Dealing with 'Impostor Syndrome'

    bambiDo you often attribute your successes to luck rather than your abilities? Do you feel that you’re tricking people into thinking you’re more competent or intelligent than you actually are? If so, you may be experiencing ‘impostor syndrome’ – a term first used in the 1970’s by psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes to describe high-achievers unable to internalise their accomplishments. It is also coupled with an ongoing fear of being exposed as a fraud; that one day people will realise that you’re not as good at what you do as they first thought.

    Whilst ‘impostor syndrome’ is not defined as an official mental disorder, it is often a painful character trait to live with. Not only do we fear judgement or rejection from others, but we also miss out on experiencing satisfaction and pride in what we do. Even when we do receive praise, this may be followed with anxiety over whether we can perform to the same standard again in order to avoid disappointing those who have praised us. So what can we do about it?

    Breaking the Rumination Cycle

    Those of us who feel like a ‘fraud’, whether it’s in our career or creative pursuits, may find that we typically spend more time ruminating about our failings than we do on enjoying our successes. Even if we succeed nine times out of ten, we’ll probably dwell on that one mistake more than anything else. Here’s where mindfulness can come in handy!

    By building some awareness around our thought patterns (i.e. “I know they said they liked it, but it could have been so much better”) we can begin the process of detaching a little from those thoughts. It may even help to give them a label, to help with recognising them for what they are. So for example, next time you find yourself reflecting on how you duped your boss into thinking you were good at your job, you can think to yourself, ‘Impostor syndrome thought’. This can be done with all kinds of thoughts actually, but the point is to start identifying with the thoughts less, so that in time you may come to think of yourself as less of an actual impostor, and more as someone who just has impostor thoughts.

    Lingering on Praise

    When someone praises us, our first thought might be something like, ‘Oh, it was nothing’, ‘I just got lucky’, or ‘Anyone could have done it’. If we’ve experienced impostor syndrome for a long time, we may brush off praise without even being aware that we’re doing it. Yet it may be helpful to start giving more attention to the positive feedback we receive.

    By spending a few moments to let the good feelings in, we can start to do a little rewiring of the brain to help it become more attuned to receiving praise. As Dr. Rick Hanson describes:

    “By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience—even the comfort in a single breath—you’ll help turn a passing mental state into lasting neural structure.”

    So next time someone tells you that you did a good job, experiment with letting that positivity in, even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first.

    Self-Compassion

    This may seem like a difficult thing to give yourself if you’re feeling like you’re no good at anything, yet bear with us. When we’re feeling inadequate, what is it that we most crave? It’s probably a sense of self-confidence, or better yet, some self-esteem! We want to feel adequate, competent, enough. Yet, we tend to base our sense of self-esteem on our achievements, which puts impostor syndrome sufferers in a rather hopeless situation. As Dr. Kristin Neff says it in her book ‘Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind’:

    “It’s the old carrot-and-stick approach—self-judgment is the stick and self-esteem is the carrot.”

    Instead of constantly trying to succeed enough to earn ourselves some elusive self-esteem, we can instead give ourselves something that doesn’t rely on such conditions. After all, we don’t usually give compassion to others based on how much money they earn, how high-ranking their position is, or how popular they are. Rather, we give compassion to those who are suffering, and that can include ourselves too.

    Although mindfulness can’t completely remove our impostor thoughts, by using the above practices we can start to relate and react to them in a lighter, healthier way.

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Work

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • Meeting Imperfection with Kindness

    imperfectionThis post was inspired by Tara Brach’s talk ‘Relating Wisely with Imperfection’. You can listen to the full talk here.

    When we bring to mind our imperfections, how do we feel? Perhaps we feel a sense of guilt, embarrassment, shame, regret, depression or anxiety. We may feel a tightness; an urge to keep our imperfections hidden from others. We probably wouldn’t want everyone to know of our addictions and failings, all the times we acted stupidly or selfishly, the times when we’ve lost control, lost our courage or lost our minds. And yet, in the act of me writing these words and of you reading them and relating to them, we’ve both tapped into an important point to consider: these imperfections are not unique to us alone; they are universally shared by all human beings. We all know the fear of being seen as ‘not good enough’.

    If we take just one of our imperfections and look at it for a moment, what happens when we ask ourselves the question, “Imperfect, compared to what?” What standard are we holding in our minds that we feel we are falling short of? Is it a person, or an imagined ideal? Whatever the answer may be, it’s useful to bring awareness to the standards we are expecting ourselves to meet, and to question their validity.

    We may feel concerned about normalising our imperfections, however, because if we don’t feel bad about them how will we ever change? Some of our imperfections may cause hurt to others, and so how can we be okay with that? Yet, we may also know deep down that reacting to imperfection with judgement never really works. We will never run out of imperfections to judge, and so where does that approach leave us? A life of self-loathing and anxiety simply because we are human?

    True healing and change arises from acceptance and compassion. These qualities can only flower from mindful awareness. In order to cultivate this new approach towards imperfection (in ourselves and others), we can use mindfulness to help us remember to pause before we judge. Kindness rarely makes a person lazy. In fact, kindness and acceptance often gives us the strength to be able to make better choices, and to forgive ourselves more easily when we make ‘bad’ choices so that we can move beyond them.

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • Using Mindfulness When Things Are Beyond Our Control

    controlAs much as we like to plan and make our own choices, there will always be times in our lives when we have little or no control over what happens to us. Say we have an accident and have to stay in hospital for a while, or we’re involved in a legal procedure and are awaiting a decision that could change our lives, or even something less serious as waiting to hear about how we did in a job interview. That waiting, lack of influence or loss of autonomy can be incredibly stressful or depressing. Our minds may be full of solutions that we simply are unable to put into use, or we may be plagued with regret, rumination and if-only’s.

    However, we can use mindfulness and self-compassion to help us get through these difficult or uncomfortable situations.

    ‘Fight or Flight’ Reactions

    Ever noticed how stressful situations get your blood pumping, your heart beating faster, and your whole body buzzing with nervous tension? That’s a ‘fight or flight’ reaction (also known as ‘hyperarousal’ or ‘acute stress response’) – a physiological response to a perceived attack or threat. An initial response from the amygdala then starts a chemical chain reaction within the body, which is why our blood pressure goes up (among other things). The nature of the threat doesn’t really matter to the brain; the fight or flight response could be triggered by a vicious dog jumping out at us, or just the prospect of speaking in public. Basically anything that we perceive as being potentially harmful to our physical or psychological well-being will send us into that stress reaction.

    In general, this is no bad thing; it’s designed to help keep us safe from danger. However, if this reaction is triggered regularly, it can make us feel constantly anxious and on-edge.

    This can happen in situations that are beyond our control; we naturally feel threatened or at risk, however, there’s nothing we can do to avert that risk. For example, say we’re waiting for an important medical scan, the results of which could show whether or not we have cancer. We have to wait for the scan, and then we have to wait for the results, and throughout all this time there’s nothing we can do other than worry. Our anxious thoughts of not-knowing, of not being able to ‘do’ anything will keep triggering our fight or flight responses, trapping us in a perpetual state of stress. Aside from the health issues this can cause, it’s simply not pleasant! So what can we do when we find ourselves helpless against our circumstances?

    Noticing When We’re On High Alert

    The first step in helping ourselves cope is to notice when we’ve gone into a stress reaction – sometimes this can happen just from thinking about the situation we’re in. By bringing mindful awareness to our bodies, we can notice if our breathing has become rapid, or if we are holding tension in parts of our bodies.

    What usually happens when we bring mindfulness to these things is that we naturally let go a little, simply from noticing that the tension is there. Of course, this won’t always be the case though. It’s not always possible to relax ourselves. In these cases, it may just be enough to simply acknowledge how we’re feeling. If we’ve been going through a trying time, we may have got stuck in the belief that we must keep soldiering on, that we can’t allow ourselves to feel sad, angry, anxious or whatever else. And so we hold it all inside. Being honest and accepting of whatever is arising for us at this time will allow those feelings to come and go more freely, rather than getting held tight in the body.

    Mindfulness Shrinks Amygdala Volume

    Studies have found correlations between increased mindfulness and decreased amygdala volume. Remember that it’s the amygdala which kicks off the whole stress response process. So in other words, people who practice mindfulness benefit from a reduction in stress and anxiety. That’s not to say that we won’t still feel stressed during stressful situations! Yet we are more likely to be able to cope better when those things arise. Therefore, practicing mindfulness isn’t just a good idea for in-the-moment stress relief, but is useful as a sort of ‘preventive’ measure for future stresses too, in the same way that strengthening your back muscles may help prevent so many aches and pains in later life.

    Self-Compassion in a Crisis

    There’s never really a time when some self-compassion isn’t a good idea, however when we’re helpless and in a difficult situation that’s when we really do need it the most. When there’s nothing else we can possibly do, we can at least be kind to ourselves.

    In a beautiful talk (The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion), self-compassion expert, Kristin Neff describes a particularly challenging experience she had on board a plane with her four year old autistic son, Rowan. As can sometimes happen when autistic children are very young, Rowan had a terrible tantrum. He’s flailing and screaming on the plane, while all the passengers are staring disapprovingly. Kristin decides to take him to the bathroom to comfort him away from everyone else, but when they get there it’s occupied:

    “So imagine being in that little space, outside the bathroom door, with this tantruming child, and I knew that in that moment the only refuge I had was self-compassion. So I put my hands over my heart, and, I tried to comfort him but I was mainly focussing on myself: ‘This is so hard right now darling, I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but I’m here for you.’ And you know what? It got me through.”

    So although there are some things in life that we can’t control, we can at least choose to be kind and caring towards ourselves; to take a deep breath, acknowledge how hard things are right now and that we’re doing the best we can, and show ourselves some compassion.

    MEDITATIONS:

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • Present Perfect

    Do you frequently find yourself ruminating over mistakes? Do you give yourself or others a hard time when things don’t go according to plan? Do you find it painful to hand over tasks to others, for fear they’ll mess things up?

    If any of this sounds familiar, you may be a perfectionist: someone who spends a significant amount of time feeling anxious about doing things ‘correctly’ and prioritising what you feel you should do over what you’d like to do.

    Almost all of us experience these feelings from time to time, however when our striving for perfection becomes excessive, we can end up feeling exhausted and entirely lacking in self-worth. Far from improving our lives, perfectionism can destroy our peace of mind, leading to life feeling more like a chore than a joy.

    Obsessed with the Destination

    As perfectionists, our focus is primarily on future goals – finishing the project, getting the grades, succeeding, achieving, completing. We’re so busy working towards the “perfect outcome” that we completely miss the journey, along with any happiness which may lie in the process. We want to reach perfection, so that we can finally stop and rest. And yet, we never do seem to get there, do we?

    We think that this determination to succeed makes us better at what we do. Yet while it may sometimes make us more productive and hard-working than others, it kills spontaneity, flexibility and ultimately creativity. Creativity requires the space to make mistakes and adapt; perfectionism restricts and confines us to a narrow view of how things should be.

    With so many internal should’s and shouldn’t’s, we are dragged away from the present moment, locked into a rigid view of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure. Failure in itself is not so bad, yet when we believe that our self-worth exists within success, failure then feels like the end of our world. It doesn’t matter that we did our best, learnt new things, or had good experiences along the way: if we didn’t ‘win’, it didn’t count.

    In his book ‘Present Perfect’, Pavel Somov describes perfectionism this way: “It is a mindless reaction driven by the past rather than a mindfully chosen action that reflects the present.” Stuck in our prison of rules from the past, we lose sight of the value of the present moment. Which is ironic, for if we could only slow down for a moment, we would see that perfection has been there all along, waiting for us to take notice.

    The Perfection of Flow

    Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.” - Salvador Dali

    Even if we were to create something which met our standards of perfection, it could never remain that way. Just as things grow and blossom, they also fade and decay. Seeking perfection in a world of constant change is like demanding that a beautiful sunset never end. We cannot stop the sun from dipping below the horizon. However, we can make efforts to become present with the sunset and savour it while it is there. We can use mindfulness to shift our focus from creating perfect outcomes to enjoying the perfection inherit in the moment to moment flow of life.

    This can be done by noticing when our minds are preoccupied with thoughts of ideal outcomes:

    Next time you are working on a task, such as a work project, creative pursuit, or even when you are sitting doing meditation, try to notice when you start thinking about achieving an end goal, rather than appreciating the moment to moment experience of what you are doing. End goals could be anything from wanting to impress your boss, make more money or become an “expert” meditator.

    Once you’ve noticed, gently bring your attention back to the present moment. Focusing on the breath or on physical sensations is a useful way of doing this. However, beware of turning this practice into yet another goal to be achieved perfectly. Gentleness is key here. Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, bring it back to your current experience.

    Experiment with resting in the sense that whatever you do, whatever you feel, you are already perfectly human, perfectly changeable and ever-evolving just as all of nature is, and that you could never be any other way.