In my life coaching work with women, I am regularly faced with the honor and challenge of helping clients mitigate the negative impacts of perfectionism.
One of my primary tools for working with clients who are highly self-critical is self-compassion.
An article this week on MSNBC describes recent research showing self-compassion to be much more important to resilience and personal happiness than self-esteem. I see this every day in my office when a client finally, often after years of listening to the internal critical voice, begins to hear a more compassionate ally within.
The cultural focus on self-esteem has misdirected parents to either over-praise kids or push them relentlessly towards performance. According to the article, “But now scientists are realizing they may have been measuring the wrong thing; all the benefits of having high self-esteem are equally found among the self-compassionate, said psychologist Mark Leary, a researcher at Duke University. And when statistically looking at self-compassion alone, the negative aspects of high self-esteem, such as narcissism, disappear.”
The depression, anxiety and stress of perfectionism also lessen or disappear when self-compassion is practiced.
Kristin Neff, associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater) is spearheading research on self-compassion. Her book, “Self Compassion, Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” was published this Spring.
Neff defines self-compassion through three aspects: mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.
In my practice, I regularly use mindfulness with clients to help them pay careful attention to their own thoughts, feelings and body sensations. This creates an ability to self-reflect and be more present and takes them out of automatic critical mode.
My understanding of common humanity is simple this: we are all connected and none of us is alone in experiencing difficulty. Normalizing common feelings can be hugely helpful in inspiring self-compassion. It also increases a sense of personal courage to know that other people have similar feelings and experiences.
And kindness is an attitude that must be directed both inwardly and outwardly. The true measure of compassion is not the ability to be kind to others, but the ability to be kind to oneself. And the research is showing this to be absolutely true.
Researcher Mark Leary says,”Self-compassion begins to sound like you are indulging yourself, but we don’t find that. People high in self-compassion tend to have higher standards, work harder and take more personal responsibility for their actions.”