Yoga-Therapy for Anxiety

Taming Perfectionism With CBT

By Amanda Polster, LMSW

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” (Brown, 2010)

Perfectionism. That strong and often annoying desire  to accomplish everything unwaveringly and flawlessly. Research shows that perfectionism often leads to symptoms of anxiety and depression, and has increased over time with the influence of social media and technology (Schrijvers, 2010).

Perfectionism is defined as “the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one’s goals, with no allowance for falling short of one’s ideals” (Neff, 2011). Sounds familiar right? While it is important to set goals and create a level of motivation to reach accomplishment, perpetually attempting perfectionism can actually hinder our ability to achieve our desires due to the enormous level of stress and anxiety it can cause. Setting incredibly high expectations often leads to disappointment and failure if full accomplishment is not achieved. 

Perfectionism does have an upside. Even if we drive ourselves crazy in the process, perfectionism can be an incredible determinator to do our best. “Striving to achieve and setting high standards for [ourselves] can be a productive and healthy trait” (Neff, 2011). The problem is, this mentality can become dangerous when our entire self worth is valued by our ability to accomplish everything perfectly, with no mistakes or room for error. 

Try these tips below to help relieve some of the anxiety and fear of failure that we experience when we set extremely high expectations and judge our worth based on accomplishing these goals. 

 

Acknowledging We Did Not Create this Culture Ourselves

Society places extreme pressure on us to achieve. We live in a society where individual success functions on a “survival of the fittest” culture. Making mistakes is viewed as failing instead of as opportunities to learn and grow. As a society, the interest to achieve perfectionism can lead to the belief that “the better I do, the better I’m expected to do” by others (Benson, 18). When we acknowledge that we did not create this culture, we can relieve ourselves of the blame of attempting to live a completely idealistic lifestyle. Identifying this societal standard can also normalize the perfectionist mentality and reduce feelings of isolation and beliefs that I am the only one who experiences this pressure.

 

Identify our Contrasting Values

Perfectionism may sound wonderful on the surface, but often contrasts with our interest in growing, learning, and continuing to set new goals. If we achieve perfection in every aspect of our life, we likely will experience boredom and a level of dissatisfaction because our desire to compete  and find new things to learn will be compromised. Living a perfect life in all realms will result in a lack of space to grow or develop. This is an opportunity to acknowledge our imperfections as not faults but as part of our humanity. Identifying our contrasting values also allows us to acknowledge the cliche yet real experience that we often learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

 

Setting Boundaries

One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, discusses the importance of setting boundaries to improve self compassion and acceptance and counter feelings of perfectionism. Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if we enjoy presenting as sweeter and perfect on the outside. However, study shows that the more compassionate a person is, the more boundary-conscious they are; the heart of compassion is actually acceptance (Brown, 2010). If we accept ourselves for our imperfections and flaws, we are more likely to hold others accountable for hurting us and less likely to allow others to take advantage of our kindness and support.

 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Imperfection

Worthiness does not have prerequisites; however we often assign prerequisites to our levels of worth in an effort to achieve perfection. Examples of these prerequisites might be…

 

            “I’ll be worthy if I get an A on this paper”

            “I’ll be worthy if he calls me back and asks me on another date”

            “I’ll be worthy if I lose 20 pounds”

            “I’ll be worthy if they offer me this job”

            “I’ll be worthy if I can hold my marriage together”

 

Often times, these prerequisites not only create additional feelings of anxiety to accomplish these expectations, but they also are expectations that may not completely be within our control. For example, if we take sole responsibility for repairing a relationship, we are holding our own blame as well as the blame of someone else - that must feel very heavy! Moreover, if we ground our worth in whether we get offered a job, this can result in displacing feelings of shame on ourselves where the decision is not a reflection of our capacities but a reflection of the decision of an agency.

 

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a powerful tool and model in reframing and countering prerequisites to our feelings of worthiness. When we challenge some of these expectations and their impact on our worth, we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to accomplish everything perfectly. CBT can also support in reframing destructive self-talk language of blame and shame around not accomplishing tasks at our highest capacity to develop healthy self-talk language around compassion, courage, and care. Cultivating self-compassion as part of CBT allows us to reframe our experiences from imperfections to opportunities, identifying that the more imperfections we have, the more opportunities we have to grow.

 

Benson, Etienne. The many faces of perfectionism. 2003. Vol 34, No. 10.

 

Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Brene Brown. 2010.

 

Schrijvers, Didier L., Ellen R. A. De Brujin, Marianne Destoop, Wouter Hulstijn, Bernard G. C. Sabbe. The impact of perfectionism and anxiety traits on action monitoring in major depressive disorder. 2010. Vol 117, Issue 7. pp 869-880. Journal of Neural Transmission.

 

Neff, Kristin. Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Kristin Neff. 2011.

Coping with Loss During the Holiday Season

By Amanda Polster, LMSW

Grief and bereavement are natural experiences of life, and none of us are immune to this type of pain. At some point in our lives, we have experienced grief – a death of a loved one, a loss of a job or financial security, divorce or relationship separation, an estranged family member, a miscarriage, ongoing trauma that compromises senses of safety, etc. Although a healthy response to loss, grief can lead to suffering and symptoms of depression if we are unable cope and feel supported during these tumultuous experiences.

 

The intensity of grief is often related to the attachment to the person or thing we lost. For example, if we lose someone very close to us - a partner, a friend, a parent, a sibling, a child - we will be more impacted and challenged to accept reality that this person is no longer here.

 

The correlation between our attachment to someone and the impact their loss has on our lives is not to discourage healthy and strong relationships at the fear of potential loss; it is the contrary. By experiencing healthy attachment relationships, we gain a greater connection with our identity and needs. If we are challenged with a sudden loss and are left questioning how to repair or fill this void in our lives, we are given an opportunity to identify our needs during this difficult life experience. We can ask ourselves questions that can prompt a greater sense of self compassion and connectedness. Anodea Judith, an American author, therapist, and public speaker grounds her work in internal healing methods, and suggests asking ourselves these questions in time of grief and crisis:

 

“Why was this person in particular so special to me?” 

“What did this person bring to me that I am missing in myself?” 

“What part of me was particularly bonded to this person, and what does that part need?” 

 “What have I lost touch with in myself as a result of this ending, and how can I nurture and regain that part of myself once again?” (Judith, 278)

 

Along with these thoughtful questions, below are some additional practices that can move us from pain towards healing in times of emotional adversity.

Connecting to Our Heart Center

“When our heart is heavy with grief, it is hard to open, even hard to breathe. When grief is denied, we become numb to our feelings and our aliveness. We become hard and cold, rigid and distant. We may feel dead inside. When grief is acknowledged and expressed, however, we find a vital key to opening the heart. Tears are shed, truth expressed, and the heart lightens. The breath deepens. There is a sense of spaciousness that emerges, allowing more room inside for our spirit. Hope is reborn. Coming to terms with our own grief leads toward compassion for others”

 

Grief challenges and counteracts the heart’s connection to ourselves and others, and makes it feel closed and heavy. For this reason, feelings of isolation and disconnect are common in times of need. In these distressing times, it is important to allow ourselves to share our pain with others to relieve the heaviness of these moments. Times of grief are a perfect opportunity to validate that not being ok is ok, and feeling pain is part of our humanity. Validating our state of grief allows our hearts to open during this process to begin working through the pain.

 

Using Mindfulness Practices to Grieve

“Grief, after all, is not a pathology or an illness, but a natural part of life that causes us to experience suffering. Since the goal of mindfulness practices is the cessation of suffering, it can only make sense to bring the two together” (Stang, 10).

 

The good thing about mindfulness practices is they are easily accessible - all you need is yourself. Mindfulness allows us to pay attention to our bodies with observance and curiosity, eliminating acts of judgment that come naturally, especially during times of grief. Mindfulness can help relieve various emotional expression: stress that come with expectations to grieve within a certain period of time; anger that comes naturally with the loss of someone or something we are attached to; denial that the information in front of us cannot be true.

Qualities that come from using mindfulness to work through grief:

            -improved self-perception

            -improved sense of strength

            -improved level of compassion

            -better relationship with others[1]

 

Breathe. A helpful mindfulness practice during bereavement is focusing on our breath. When grief causes panic, focusing on our breath can be very soothing and calming, and relieve us of the immediate overwhelm during adversity.

 

 

Tapping Into our Support System

When we lose someone close to us, it can feel disturbing or discontenting, as if pieces of our identity have been removed or lost as well. In these times, it can be easy to try to fill that void by taking on the role of healer and making sure loved ones around you are safe and supported. This act of kindness can demonstrate our unconditional support for those closest too us. While this might feel powerful and helpful as a distraction, it is important to ask ourselves:

“What do I need right now?”

“Am I allowing myself the time to grieve?”

“Why is it important to me to help others at this time?”

 

Additional Resources

Honor yourself for your openness to explore this time of adversity with hope and optimism.

 

Grief is very powerful.

 

It can change your relationship to others, your worldview, and your relationship to yourself. The energy that comes with grief can influence our physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional capacities. However, we have the power to determine how we grieve. We have the ability to allow grief to either hinder our progression or become an opportunity for self reflection compassion, and acceptance. This form of acceptance does not mean we have to fully accept that our loved one is no longer with us, but we can accept our ability to move forward and to have a different yet still personal relationship with someone who holds a special place in our hearts.

 

If you are seeking additional support to work through your grief, we can help. Contact Us Today for a free 15 minute consultation.

 

1.      Judith, Anodea. Eastern Body Western Mind. 2004. Anodea Judith.

2.      Stang, Heather. Mindfulness and Grief: With Guided Meditation. 2014. CICO Books.


[1] Stang, Heather. Mindfulness and Grief: With Guided Meditation. 2014. CICO Books.