Reduce Perfectionism with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The goal of mindfulness practices is to help you practice “awareness of the present moment without judgment.” The tricky part for us perfectionists is the “without judgment.” As perfectionists, we are conditioned to judge—ourselves and others, anything and everything. Letting go of the judgment is the biggest opportunity you have to release your perfectionist hat, and meditation is a great place to begin making peace with perfectionism.” – Melissa Eisler
It can be useful to constructively criticize yourself as long as you realize that you’re human and are not, and will not ever be, perfect. You can then use the self-criticism to try to improve, not become perfect, but a little better. But, when self-criticism becomes extreme it can lead to perfectionistic thinking where you are never happy with yourself. This can lead to great unhappiness and psychological distress.
Mindfulness has been thought to help prevent perfectionism from producing distress. In support of this mindfulness has been found to reduce self-criticism and to improve self-esteem and a healthy self-esteem is counter to perfectionism. It’s difficult to be happy with oneself and critical of yourself as less than ideal at the same time. So, mindfulness training should be an antidote to perfectionism.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Versus Pure Cognitive Behavioural Self-Help for Perfectionism: a Pilot Randomised Study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5968046/ ), James and Rimes recruited college students who were perfectionistic and this perfectionism caused significant distress and impairment of everyday function. They were randomly assigned to an 8-week Cognitive Behavioral self-help for perfectionism program or an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program.
MBCT consisted of 2-hour sessions once a week for 8 weeks and included home practice. MBCT involves mindfulness training, containing sitting and walking meditation and body scan, and cognitive therapy to alter how the patient relates to the thought processes that often underlie and exacerbate psychological symptoms. They were measured before and after training and 10 weeks later for perfectionism, impairment caused by perfectionism, self-reported depression, anxiety and stress, self-compassion, rumination, unhelpful beliefs about emotions, mindfulness and decentering.
They found that in comparison to baseline and the Cognitive Behavioural self-help for perfectionism program the students who underwent the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program had significantly greater decreases in perfectionism, unhelpful beliefs about emotions and rumination, and significantly higher levels of mindfulness, self-compassion and decentering. These differences were present both immediately after training and 10 weeks later. Mediation analysis revealed that the MBCT program produced greater self-compassion which, in turn, was associated with lower perfectionism.
These are interesting results and suggest that the mindfulness training component of MBCT is critical as MBCT had significantly greater effects than simply presenting the Cognitive Behavior components by themselves. They further suggest that the effectiveness of MBCT for perfectionism results from changes in self-compassion. This makes sense as understanding and accepting one’s own faults is incompatible with criticizing oneself for those faults. Finally, the results suggest that MBCT is a safe and effective treatment for students suffering from high levels of perfectionism that produce distress and impairment of everyday function.
So, reduce perfectionism with mindfulness.
“Mindfulness practice reveals how pervasive this pressure to be perfect is, and how I impose perfectionistic rules on myself. I’m happier when I give myself permission to be imperfect.” – Arnie Kozak
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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James, K., & Rimes, K. A. (2018). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Versus Pure Cognitive Behavioural Self-Help for Perfectionism: a Pilot Randomised Study. Mindfulness, 9(3), 801–814. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0817-8
This pilot study compared mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) with a self-help guide based on cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for university students experiencing difficulties due to perfectionism. Participants were randomised to an MBCT intervention specifically tailored for perfectionism or pure CBT self-help. Questionnaires were completed at baseline, 8 weeks later (corresponding to the end of MBCT) and at 10-week follow-up. Post-intervention intention-to-treat (ITT) analyses identified that MBCT participants (n = 28) had significantly lower levels of perfectionism and stress than self-help participants (n = 32). There was significant MBCT superiority for changes in unhelpful beliefs about emotions, rumination, mindfulness, self-compassion and decentering. At 10-week follow-up, effects were maintained in the MBCT group, and analyses showed superior MBCT outcomes for perfectionism and daily impairment caused by perfectionism. Pre-post changes in self-compassion significantly mediated the group differences in pre-post changes in clinical perfectionism. Greater frequency of mindfulness practice was associated with larger improvements in self-compassion. MBCT is a promising intervention for perfectionist students, which may result in larger improvements than pure CBT self-help. The findings require replication with a larger sample.