Kryptonite is defined by the Oxford dictionary as, “something that can seriously weaken or harm a particular person or thing.” It’s the one thing that if Superman came in contact with it, would kill him and destroy his superpowers.
As a Positive Psychology Coach, I have worked with many high-achieving and perfectionistic clients on developing the superpower of self-compassion. It has the ability to transform their relationship with self and others.
So what’s the link between perfectionism and self-compassion? First, let’s examine the quality of perfectionism.
What Is Perfectionism?
It is worth noting that perfectionism isn’t all bad. In many cases, it is a character strength that simply comes out sideways. For example, the Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey labels Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence as a character strength. So, how do we differentiate between perfectionism vs. appreciation of beauty and excellence? The answer is subtle. While you might appreciate beauty and excellence in your appearance, you also need to accept that bodies age and change with time. Instead of spending lots of money on procedures to stay looking young, find inspiration from people who have celebrated the aging process and found contentment and humor along the way—a redefinition of what beauty is.
Likewise, you might learn to embrace “good enough” in certain areas of your life, but be meticulous and detailed in other areas, like a career or a craft that is suited to refined precision. I have often appreciated that the person who cuts my hair applies a perfectionistic eye. Likewise, I am grateful for the perfectionist strengths of the surgeon who reconstructed my knee. Chances are, if you are a perfectionist, you have been told that you are too anal, too particular. Upon getting this message over and over, you begin to have a negative relationship with your appreciation for excellence, which then perpetuates a shame cycle. Seeing that it is a character strength when applied in appropriate settings can actually help soften the need to be perfect in every area of life.
An examination of perfectionism reveals all the ways that society feeds the ideal that we must be perfect in everything. Social media and advertising highlight perfect lives, flawless bodies. Globally, $67.3 billion was spent on cosmetic procedures in 2021, and that number is projected to reach $201 billion by 2031. Our appearances aren’t the only place that perfection is sold. We are tempted with ideas of the perfect home, perfect job, and self-help books on how to be the perfect parent. And most poignantly, we are sold the idea that in order to feel worthy and whole, we need to be more than ordinary—we need to be extraordinary. The cost of this high standard is that when we don’t measure up, we treat ourselves harshly and with condemnation.
Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, says, “Continuously feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash a pendulum swings to despair … We can’t always feel special and above average. The result is often devastating.” The constant striving for perfection eventually leads to destruction in relationships, our bodies, and our mental health. In short, the perfectionist’s Kryptonite is a lack of self-compassion.
Self-Compassion: The Superpower
If lack of self-compassion is the Kryptonite to perfectionists, then self-compassion is the superpower. Self-compassion is the ability to be kind to ourselves when we experience mistakes, failures, or imperfections. It also involves being able to recognize and see our own suffering. Finally, self-compassion requires a recognition that we are not alone in the struggle for perfection. In a sense, self-compassion is also the permission to be imperfect.
Self-compassion has been linked to key components of health and well-being. Additionally, self-compassion practices have been shown to transform one’s thinking, relationships, and general view of self. For the perfectionist, self-compassion can be a powerful tool in many areas of life. Neff highlights three core components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
- Self-Kindness: In learning to be kinder to oneself, we give to ourselves the same warmth, comfort, and sympathy that we give to our friends, neighbors, and family who are struggling. Additionally, it requires quieting the inner critic and self-judgment. Taking it a step further, we ca recognize how self-judgment harms us at the level of the soul. According to Neff, true self-kindness requires that “we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain.”
- Common Humanity: To be human is to suffer and therefore we can acknowledge the shared experience that all humans face at some point in time. Some experience more extreme suffering than others; however, the fact remains that all human beings suffer. In fact, it is often our shared suffering that connects us as human beings. This is the fundamental reason people seek out support groups when grieving, struggling with addiction, or healing from traumatic experiences or illness. Shared suffering bonds us together. As a key component of self-compassion, acknowledging shared pain can be helpful in bringing us back into connection when we are feeling alone and isolated. As Neff says, “The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.” A remembrance of our shared struggle with inadequacy and disappointment is what separates self-compassion from self-pity.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness in relation to self-compassion is simply our ability to recognize and see clearly the pain of our experiences. Doing this without judgment helps us acknowledge our pain just as it is, without exaggerating or downplaying it in any way. We become fully present to our feelings and experience.
Application to Coaching
Neff’s work continues to be a simple yet powerful coaching tool to offer a client who has come too close to the destructive perfectionist’s Kryptonite. Working with self-compassion in the coaching setting can do the following for clients who have perfectionistic tendencies along with a harsh inner critic:
- Improve mindset
- Achieve goals through opening their creativity and willingness to take risks
- Orient clients toward personal growth
- Improve their relationship with themselves and others
- Increase well-being
- Strengthen the mind/body/spirit connection
As a recovering perfectionist myself, I found self-compassion makes all the difference in my willingness to put myself out there as coach, and I enjoy coaching clients toward all the benefits listed above. I have seen them soar to new places in their life with the superpower of self-compassion as their cape.
Anne Gustin is a certified Positive Psychology Coach, a graduate of WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, and a Teaching Assistant for WBI’s Positive Psychology Coaching: Skill-Building Intensive course. She is also a Duke–certified Health and Well-being Coach and Registered Yoga Teacher, and holds a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. Anne teaches yoga and runs her own coaching business in Minneapolis, Form and Feather Mindful Coach, where she works with clients to develop mindfulness, broaden their possibilities, and find self-compassion along the way. Learn more at formandfeather.com.