Guest Post by Jeanie Bunker, CMT-200
We live in a very competitive society which constantly shows us we do not have enough material possessions and are not accomplished enough. We are socialized from a young age to want to acquire more possessions, to compete with others and driven to endlessly improve ourselves. This competitive mindset can lead to toxic perfectionist tendencies.
In his book, Present Perfect, A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control, Pavel Somov presents “three types of people on the planet:
- Those who believe perfectionism is impossible.
- Those who believe perfectionism is possible but impossibly hard to attain.
- Those who think everything is already perfect.”
Most of our society has been socialized to think like the second one, “perfectionism is possible but impossibly hard to attain.” Unfortunately, this mindset can lead to perfectionist tendencies which can negatively impact our health and wellbeing. So, what can be done to shift our perspective to heal and restore us to a more balanced and mindful way of living?
Mindfulness practices have been found to help shift the perspective of someone with perfectionist tendencies from the highly self-critical and comparison mindset to self-acceptance of their unique qualities, self-compassion and viewing community as supportive instead of as the competition.
What is Perfectionism?
According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is defined as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.”
Perfectionism, at the individual level, is a desire to be, or appear to be, perfect according to a standard or goals. This standard appears to be heavily influenced by society and often, unconsciously, internalized by the individual. For many of us, perfectionism shows up as self-criticism and relentlessly comparing ourselves to others. There is evidence that there are social, work and educationally programed aspects of perfectionism which drive perfectionist tendencies and have been shown to increase mental health problems.
People with perfectionists tendences believe, if they work hard enough, it is possible to achieve perfection. In many academic and work circles it is considered a positive trait and a requirement for successfully climbing the socio-economic ladder to higher and higher levels.
Grind Culture Drives Perfectionism
At the macro level, the standard of perfection, which we are measured by, is determined by things such as how much money one makes, the number of social media followers one has, how closely one fits a socially defined standard of beauty, or having a prestigious car. Unfortunately, these externally determined goals on the ladder to success continue to change, such that after each rung is reached, there is always another rung just out of reach. This creates a “Grind Culture” of never-ending striving in a never enough world.
Grind, or hustle, culture is all about ambition and career success, putting work first, and the drive for the perfect life. As a participant in grind culture for decades, my experience is that there is no room for self-care or work-life balance. Working long hours is expected and even glorified. Vacation or taking time off are seen as a lack of ambition. If you are not grinding and hustling, you are not succeeding.
Because grind or hustle culture has a competition and achievement orientation, perfectionism is encouraged and typically viewed as a positive trait. Perfectionists often believe their striving to be perfect increases their chances of success at work and in life. This mindset often leads to relentless striving to feed an insatiable appetite for more money, more career success, a better looking self, a better looking life, etc. This is all a result of social conditioning, learning and programming from childhood on.
In his 2022 article, The Hustle Culture Has No Future—Enter The Break Culture, Rozentals writes, “According to a study by Deloitte, 77% of people have experienced burnout at their job and 42% have left their jobs because they felt burned out. This is the result of mental and emotional stress due to working long hours and trying to keep up with unrealistic expectations set by the toxic excesses of hustle culture.”
Negative Aspects of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can leave a person feeling they never have enough and are themselves never enough. This constant pressure to perform can have a negative impact on a person’s health and wellbeing.
What makes perfectionism so toxic is that, although one is striving for success, one often ends up trying to avoid failure. Perfectionists like to be right and do the right thing. In trying to be right and avoid failure they tend to try to control everything and everyone around them. In addition, they can have self-defeating thoughts or behaviors, such as procrastinating for fear of failure or never being innovative because that requires taking risks. Unfortunately, these behaviors actually make it harder to achieve their goals and be successful.
According to a Psychology Today article on perfectionism, “when taken too far, the striving for perfection can lead to negative outcomes, like procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigid all-or-nothing thinking, toxic comparisons, and a lack of creativity. Maladaptive perfectionism is often driven by fear of failure, feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and adverse childhood experiences. It is frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and even suicidal impulses.”
In addition, people with perfectionist tendencies are often looking outside themselves for approval and validation. This can lead them to not believe in unconditional love and see the requirement for being loved as dependent on a flawless performance. This tendency can lead to finding fault in others and being critical of other peoples’ mistakes or flaws.
Negative Impact on Youth
According to a 2019 study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, perfectionistic tendencies seem to have increased substantially among young people. They write, “These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations.” Furthermore, they write that “American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.” The increase in students’ perfectionism is being driven by things such as more competition for getting into the best colleges and universities followed by professional competition to get into the best companies and the symbols of a successful life such as a high-end car. And with the ubiquity of social media, there are constant comparisons of how someone is doing relative to their peer group. The Curran and Hill study warns that the increase in perfectionism could be affecting psychological health, stating that “young people are experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation.”
How Mindfulness Practices Can Shift Our Perspective
From my experience, mindfulness practices are about being open and curious and awakening to present moment experience without judgement. Here at the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness we say, “Mindfulness is a way of living, developed through a variety of practices, that helps us bring kind and non-judgmental attention to moment by moment experience, giving us the choice to respond in ways that support health and wellbeing for ourselves and our communities.”
Perfectionism can lead to inflexibility and loss of curiosity, and it can limit our innovative thinking and eliminate risk taking. A mind that is trying to be right, and is certain, tends to be a closed mind. A mind that is in doubt and curious is an open mind.
You can see the different perspectives between the “excessive critical judging” and “need to control” of the perfectionist versus the “open and curious” and “non-judgmental attention” of mindfulness. Perfectionists risk focusing so much of their attention on their performance evaluation and the future outcome that they can be closed and not awake to their experience of the present moment.
In addition, perfectionists can be so focused on not failing and trying to control themselves and the people and world around them that they miss the experience of what is actually going on. The extensive need to control can limit their curiosity and ability to go with the flow in life and connect with others.
Mindfulness Techniques to Shift Perspective
Mindfulness practices have been shown to help us:
- change our perspectives
- regulate our nervous systems so that we can access higher reasoning for better decision making
- shift perspective from perfectionist tendencies, such as being highly self-critical and having a comparison mindset, to being more self-accepting of our unique qualities and treating ourselves with more self-compassion
- view community as a support system instead of as an arena for competition.
I have found there are 3 mindful practices that help me continue to shift away from my self-criticism and my perfectionist comparison mindset. The first is mindfully spending time in nature, the second is mindful self-compassion, and the third is joining a supportive learning community to enhance and reinforce my practice.
The Paradigm Shift – from Conformity to Diversity
The notion of “Perfection” as a social construct and therefore striving for perfection is a learned social behavior. So how do we unlearn or shift our perspective and our paradigm? Mindful practices can help us see the world differently. We can experience a paradigm shift from valuing perfection and conforming to a socially defined standard to valuing diversity and uniqueness.
If we look closely, we will notice that nothing in nature is “perfect.” Mindfully spending time in nature helps us to see the reality of the world around us and connect us with the natural world more intimately. Practicing mindfulness is a way to open our minds to new ways of seeing and being in the world. Being in nature in a mindful way can lead us to examine our experiences with awareness and curiosity, which can reveal the true uniqueness of our being. We can begin to shift our perspective to value diversity instead of conformity if we can see and appreciate our uniqueness and replace the perfection standard with valuing our uniqueness as a more important contribution to our world.
Here at Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness we often offer “Sense and Savor” practice in nature. When I do this mindful practice, I notice the incredible magic and beauty in nature as well as the truth that nature is made up of a rich diversity of living and inorganic elements. There is no clear definition of perfect or true uniformity in nature. Each tree, rock, flower, and animal are unique. Living things do not conform to a standard of perfection for their flora or fauna species. They each have characteristics that are similar for their species, but no two are exactly alike.
Sense and Savor Instructions
Pause along your path or open your window to experience the abundance of what nature has to offer us through our five senses.
- Sight – Look for the diversity in the natural elements you can see and the variety of sizes, colors and conditions you find them. Notice the lack of conformity, the different shapes, color variations and details of your natural surroundings.
- Sound – Pause and let the sounds come to you. Notice the various sounds. Closing your eyes can improve your ability to hear soft and subtle sounds.
- Smell – Natural scents can be pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Sometimes, closing your eyes can enhance your sense of smell.
- Touch – Reach out and touch some of the elements in your natural environment such as a stone or tree bark or stream of water. See the asymmetrical and unique, one of a kind, nature of these elements. Caution: do not touch plants, dirt or other elements unless you are confident they are non-toxic.
- Taste – You can taste some food and water you have brought from home for a rich mindful eating experience. For the adventuresome folks, you can try tasting some of the natural elements in your environment such as a stone or bark of a tree. Feel the texture on your lips and tongue. Caution: do not taste plants, leaves or mushrooms unless you know they are non-toxic.
Nature can be a guide and a reminder that mindful awareness and experiencing the richness that the world has to offer, rather than perfection, is the “purpose”. The truth about nature is that the blend or diversity in appearance, species, and the juxtaposition of the diverse flora and fauna together, that creates the awesome magic of nature. If you’d like to experience this in real time, the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness offers Mindful Nature Walk and Meditation classes. Check out our offerings page for the next class.
The Paradigm Shift – from Self-Criticism to Mindful Self-Compassion
For many, perfectionism shows up as relentless self-criticism from the inner critic. This can cause stress, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and an overall negative outlook on life. The inner critic often does not allow for taking in compliments or celebrating success as the inner critic is already on to the next challenge. Mindful self-compassion is a great way to shift perspectives away from self-criticism and towards self-compassion. As Dr. Kristin Neff states in the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, “Learning to embrace yourself and your imperfections gives you the resilience needed to thrive.”
What is Self-Compassion?
In her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristen Neff describes self-compassion as “quieting of one’s inner critic and replacing it with a voice of support, understanding, and care for one’s self.” What helps us to shift out of perfectionistic patterns is meeting our experience with mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion.
Kristin Neff writes, “Self-compassion entails three main components: (a) self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical, (b) common humanity—perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.”
Mindfulness teaches us to meet life as a curious observer and bring awareness to our moment-to-moment experience in a non-judgmental way. Through practicing mindful self-compassion, we learn to let go of pursuing perfection, accept that in life there is pain and that things don’t always go our way, but we can meet pain with kindness instead of self-condemnation. We realize that we share a common humanity in that we are all vulnerable and imperfect and sharing this messy human experience adventure called life.
Here at Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, our Mindful Self-Compassion program teaches us “greater awareness in the present moment of distress or suffering so we can respond with kindness and wisdom, how to treat ourselves more like a loved one, how to befriend ourselves, cultivate a gentle curiosity about inner experiences, motivate with encouragement rather than punishment, and cope with difficulty with greater calm and ease.”
NOTE: The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness offers the Mindful Self-Compassion program online and on site.
The Paradigm Shift – from Individual to Community Practice
Although mindfulness is a foundational individual practice, when it is practiced and shared among a group, the members and the community are more likely to thrive. Building in a healthy, supportive, and inclusive learning community is fundamental to our mindfulness practice. Being part of an inclusive and caring community can liberate us from our perceptions of separateness. In community we can experience strengthened relationships and see our interconnectedness to the larger world.
Here at Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, “we understand the importance of practicing together, supporting and inspiring each other in our practice, and learning from one another by example. Since 2015, we’ve been gradually building a community of kind, caring and welcoming people… our mission is cultivating compassion, wellbeing and peace through mindfulness. Our vision is a kinder, more peaceful, and compassionate world.”
Have you ever noticed that crayons that have been used a lot have lost their covers or are half their original size and have no point left? The interesting thing about these crayons is that, regardless of their shape and appearance, their true essence of color is still present and they can still be used to create wonderful pictures. This is another example of how by truly examining the world around us, we can see that there is no true need for perfection in our lives.
It is my hope that our mindfulness practices continue to shift our perspectives and heal and restore us to a more balanced, sustainable and mindful way of living. With the help of a broad array of mindfulness practices and supportive communities, we can create healthy, colorful, satisfying and sustainable lives and wonderful, beautiful and richly diverse communities. May our future generations benefit from our practice.
NOTE: To assist you on your mindfulness journey, please visit the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness for various practice opportunities and mindfulness based programs.
- Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429.
- Deloitte Workplace Burnout Survey
- Neff, Kristin, (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. 2:2, 85-101, DOI: 10.1080/15298860309032
- Neff, Kristin, (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow, New York, 2011
- Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive. The Guilford Press; Workbook edition
- The Science of Mindfulness by Tracy Ochester
- Rozentals, Artis (2022). The Hustle Culture Has No Future—Enter The Break Culture. Forbes.
- Somov, Pavel (2010), Present Perfect, A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control, New Harbinger Inc; 1st edition (June 3, 2010)