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Personality Challenges, Perfectionism, and Self-Compassion

Practicing self-compassion can pave a path to connection and healing.

Source: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

As I wrote in this blog in June, everyone has a variety of personality traits—facets of who we are that manifest in how we are—that is, in our attitude and our actions (both verbal and nonverbal). Because they are so much a part of who we are, our personality traits are often relatively invisible to us. As it relates to the unhelpful parts of our personality even when we recognize them and want to conduct ourselves differently, they can be maddeningly resistant to change.

Many personality challenges (known as “character defects” in the parlance of twelve-step recovery) are healthy and adaptive up to a point—until they cross a threshold and become imbalanced, creating problems for us and for those around us. They only become problematic and self-defeating whenever they precipitate reactions, in thinking, feeling, and/or behaving that are extreme or disproportionate to the situation, and cause suffering for oneself and/or others.

For instance, guilt is a form of emotional distress or discomfort that occurs naturally when we believe that we’ve made a mistake, committed some wrong, or failed in an obligation. Guilt becomes a personality challenge when we routinely assume more than our fair share of responsibility for problems or mistakes, or believe that it’s somehow our fault when things go wrong for which we are not responsible. Guilt can easily be used as a blunt object with which to bludgeon oneself, as some people do relentlessly.

However, guilt can be healthy and helpful in that it’s a signal that we have violated our own values or a more universal ethical-moral code, harmed someone, or otherwise acted inappropriately. In systems language, guilt is a deviation-counteracting mechanism helps keep people in-check and self-aware in ways that contribute to emotional balance.

Competitiveness can be a significant personality challenge. Being competitive becomes maladaptive and creates suffering when the need to be “better than” others or “the best” becomes a priority that overrides all others. It can become out of balance to the point where virtually everything is viewed as a competition that must be won, adversely affecting how we treat ourselves and others. When this happens competiveness interferes with relationships and other priorities.

In and of itself being competitive is not a problem nor does it create problems. Competitiveness can be an asset, based on the normal, natural, and healthy desire to do well and perform at a high level, whether in specific activities or in general. Being competitive helps motivate people put forth the effort and dedication needed to perform as well as they can and be successful in many important life areas, including school and work.

When the competition is with one’s self-imposed internal expectations as much or more than with any external “opponent” competiveness dovetails with another common personality challenge: perfectionism. Perfectionism is a response to emotional pain, primarily feelings of shame that people carry with them from childhood.

For many people, it is difficult to escape from the lingering effects of shame that has been internalized as a result of growing up in families whose emotional style included put-downs, emotional rejection/neglect, or other “small t” traumas. Often these are basically “lies” other people have told you about yourself. When the faulty and damaging perceptions of others become internalized as self-perceptions—that is, when you buy in and believe the lies other people have told you about yourself—the outcome is shame.

Perfection haunts those whom it afflicts, following people around like a shadow, providing an inexhaustible source of kindling for self-criticism. The need to be perfect permits no room for mistakes or vulnerability.

Dynamically, perfectionism is the other side of not believing oneself to be “good enough.” It is a striking example of the defense mechanism of reaction formation, wherein the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes expressed are the opposite of those actually held—which are so distressing that they are sequestered outside of conscious awareness. If you are perfect, all thoughts and feelings of inadequacy can be banished.

And yet, perfection is an illusory objective and the epitome of an unrealistic expectation. Perfectionism inevitably rebounds upon itself, reinforcing the belief that who you are is not good enough. It’s like trying to hold onto water—it may be achieved for a few moments, but it’s impossible to maintain. The harder you try to grasp it, the more completely it slips through your fingers.

The Tao Te Ching (Verse 9) speaks elegantly to this phenomenon:

Fill your bowl to the rim

and it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

and it will blunt.

The solution to harshly judging and criticizing yourself for perceived inadequacies is to try to be kind and understanding with yourself—to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves holding distressing thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in mindful awareness while allowing and forgiving our imperfections.

The practice of self-compassion also helps us connect with others through shared experience. This can take many forms, including the awareness that suffering, failure, and imperfection are universal to the experience of being human. As Pema Chödrön, has put it, “True compassion does not come from wanting to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but from realizing our shared kinship with all human beings.”

The more you can open your heart to and accept the inescapable reality that self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy are experiences that everyone goes through instead of fighting against it, the more you develop your capacity to practice compassion for yourself, as well as others. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for oneself means that we can honor our humanness by accepting ourselves—even during those times when we inevitably come up against our limitations and fall short of our ideals.

 Copyright 2015 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain