141: How to Cultivate Self-Compassion When You're a Perfectionist - Vibrant Christian Living

141: How to Cultivate Self-Compassion When You’re a Perfectionist

Self-compassion is a big part of having a healthy identity as a Christian woman, or just as a woman in general.  If we struggle with perfectionism, however, at times it can feel downright impossible to have compassion for ourselves.  All we can see are the things that are wrong, or the things that need to change. 

How can we cultivate self compassion when we struggle with perfectionism? As a recovering perfectionist myself, the info I’m sharing in today’s episode blew my mind! 

I cannot wait to share how to welcome more self-compassion, how to use compassion to manage shame triggers (often the root of perfectionism) and how godly compassion is a powerful way that God brings healing in us so that we can heal others.

 
The link between self-compassion and perfectionism, and how self-compassion relates to what God thinks about us and how He views us.

WHAT YOU'LL LEARN: 

  • [2:01] What the perfectionist mind is like
  • [3:38] Perfectionism is a response to shame
  • [7:30] The opposite of shame is self compassion and forgiveness
  • [8:31] How to describe perfectionism
  • [11:39] Compassion for others starts with self compassion
  • [14:28] A definition of self compassion
  • [18:25] Bible verses related to self compassion
  • [26:23] Why it is so difficult for us to have self compassion
  • [29:30] Having enough self compassion to cope with shame triggers
  • [33:59] Self compassion as a mental clearing
  • [35:25] Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves
  • [37:22] Believing in the compassion God has for us

[2:01] What the perfectionist mind is like

For more information about the inner dialogue of a perfectionist mind, check out episode 126: Confessions of a Recovering Workaholic + Perfectionist.  

I want to share a little bit more about what other people have said about what it means to be a perfectionist. I love how Brene Brown defines perfectionism in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. She says, “Perfectionism is the belief that if we act perfect, we can minimize the pain, blame, and shame. It’s a twenty-ton shield that’s trying to protect us. Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.”  

The concept that it was about approval and acceptance rather than about self-improvement was immensely eye-opening for me. I really thought, for the longest time, that my perfectionism was my tool to make sure I was always at my best and that God was with me in that perfectionism because He wants me to be my best. In reality, however, He wanted to help me grow but I was going about it in ways that were destructive to me. And that is because I was doing it without this lens of self-compassion.

Brene Brown also notes that healthy striving is self-focused, concentrated on how one can improve.  Perfectionism is others-focused, concentrated on what they will think. 

[3:38] Perfectionism is a response to shame

Brene says in her book that shame is the birthplace of perfectionism, and I really bristled when I started thinking about this. I felt like shame meant that I was sitting in a corner feeling sorry for myself, but really what I was doing with perfectionism was beating myself up because I didn’t feel like I deserved a loving response to what I was feeling. It was how I Had been conditioned to move myself forward.

Perfectionism is really about this response to shame, and the roots are in trauma. It is based on the different ways that we have responded to difficult things in our lives and how we defined how we were going to feel worthy, loved, and enough.

In the Christian Mindset Makeover Course we talk about the three questions our brain has subconsciously answered about identity, and how these are the filter for how we receive love and approval. When we think about trauma that cause shame, we have to ask ourselves about the four main trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.  

Let’s talk about these shame responses and how they relate to perfectionism and our inability to give self-compassion. I’m going to share the unhealthy versions of these shame responses in order to demonstrate where this shame side of perfectionism can come from and how it is a reaction to a previous or ongoing trauma.

Fight would encompass aggressive behaviors, so we may use perfectionism as a response to trying to control ourselves or others. We might tell ourselves we are going to be different and things have to change. It’s a forceful voice.

Flight is running away from our feelings, and burying ourselves in things like work or addictive behaviors. It’s an attempt to numb the pain. Workaholism and binge-eating are examples of this type of behavior.

Freeze is the inability to make a decision, and it forces us to stay stuck. Numbing can come into this a bit as well, but this is also where obsessive-compulsive behaviors can come in. We might go over and over and over certain things – we just aren’t able to move forward or try new things because we’re so stuck in these patterns.

Fawn means to appease. This response is our people-pleasing tendency. We are called to keep the peace as Christians, but I’m talking here about doing this to the point where we have no value, our opinions don’t matter, and the only thing that matters is others’ opinions of you. As long as they’re happy, we’re good.  

These compensating behaviors create different avenues of perfectionism and different ways it may be expressed. For a long time, it was hard for me to understand that perfectionism is expressed in different ways. I just thought all perfectionists worked as hard as they could, and were afraid to step out. The more I began to learn about it, I learned that we have many different responses to shame that can manifest in perfectionism.

[7:30] The opposite of shame is self compassion and forgiveness

So, if perfectionism is rooted in shame, then the opposite of shame is self-compassion and forgiveness. It’s allowing ourselves the grace, the space, and the room to be messy. This is the place to experiment and to see what else could be, versus the rigidity associated with perfectionism.

Moving forward, I want to describe the difference between perfectionism and self-compassion using some very specific terms. I’m also going to share some Bible verses to help us understand why the perfectionist side is not something of God, and how self compassion is something that we can tap into and lean on. God’s spirit can fill us up with His compassion for us, cultivating the self compassion inside of us.

[8:31] How to describe perfectionism

There are a few words I want us to associate with perfectionism. First, perfectionism is  impatient. It’s rushed. Perfectionism wants to fix something now. We don’t have time for there to be any mistakes or to figure it out.

Perfectionism is pessimistic. We will never find another way to do this. This is the only way, and we need to do it right.

Perfectionism is hard. It’s not tender, and it does not acknowledge the pain or the difficulty of a situation. It just says, suck it up. Do it. Get it done.  

Perfectionism is rigid. It doesn’t see another way besides the “perfect” way.  This is the only way to do it, and there are no other avenues.

Perfectionism is judgmental. It comes to its own conclusions. It doesn’t want to connect the dots. There is no room to consider why someone acted the way they did – there is only right and wrong. It’s very black and white.

Perfectionism is also a fake confidence. I’m sure we have all met perfectionistic people and have thought they were pretty confident. That’s the mask we would wear as perfectionists. Outwardly we portray strength and confidence, but that strength is built on a straw house covering our shame. We compensate in order to get things done, and then we can seem as though we don’t need help and we don’t need healing. It would be like walking with a severe limp and saying it doesn’t matter that we’re not walking smoothly – we’re getting there.

Lastly, perfectionism is hurtful. It damages us. It doesn’t give us room to receive grace to receive God’s love. It just says, this is wrong and we need to change it. It doesn’t tell us a different way or give us the option to find healing.

So as you can see, perfectionism is of the enemy. It keeps us stuck in darkness and unable to access the fullest potential and the freedom that God offers us. It’s not a response that allows us to have the thoughts of the Spirit, making it that much harder to actually do the things of the Spirit.

Romans 8:5-6 says those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death, but letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.  

So if we are letting these thoughts or this mindset take over, then we are also being rigid and hard. That is not God’s spirit. If that is in control, we’re not able to let the Holy Spirit rise up in us and flow out of us. We can’t love others, or ourselves.

Love is not something that we just have to work harder at. Love is something that has to flow from God into us, and then through us.  

 [11:39] Compassion for others starts with self compassion

Love is a supernatural thing, and the same is true with compassion. Compassion has to flow from God through us, and through self-compassion we can have compassion for others. Let’s talk more about why it’s so important to work through how we allow compassion to work in us.

Colossians 2: 20-23 talks about this concept of how we try to manage these behaviors inside of ourselves using the forces of this world, so to speak. These forces may seem like they’re working, but they’re really not. It says such regulations indeed have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Now, there is a very specific sin implied there, but what we can gather from that verse is that when we try to control these behaviors inside of us that need God’s healing through behaviors like perfectionism, which are of this world, we are not going to get the healing that God wants for us.  

We see glimpses of that in beautiful stories, like the story of the woman who anointed Jesus when he was at dinner with some of his friends, including Simon the leper. You can read the story in Mark 14:3-6. She has a beautiful jar of very expensive perfume, and she breaks the jar to anoint Jesus. Some of the people who are present say, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” They rebuked her harshly, and Jesus told them to leave her alone because she had done a beautiful thing.

God sees the heart, and He sees our motivations. He understands the full story and has compassion. God values self compassion and He values compassion itself.  

 [14:28] A definition of self compassion

He is a God of compassion and I want to break down again what self-compassion is compared to perfectionism. Then I want to look at some of the verses that describe the compassion that God has for His people and how it can manifest in us in self compassion.

Self-compassion is the willingness to acknowledge and honor the reality of our emotions and thoughts, no matter how pretty they are or how messy they feel. It’s a willingness to see those emotions and thoughts through the lens of a loving, caring, grace-filled God who wants to bring healing and hope. We have to be willing to acknowledge His compassion for us as a lens in front of us instead of the judgmental lens that we want to put over ourselves.

When we break down self-compassion just as we did with perfectionism we can easily see the contrast here.

Self-compassion is patient. It waits. It doesn’t rush the way perfectionism does. It gives us space to let the healing come the way God needs, in His time.

Self-compassion is optimistic. It believes the best. It believes in room for change and new ideas. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is rigid and closed. There is no room.

Self-compassion is gentle. It moves with the soft touch as tender areas are discussed. Perfectionism is harsh and doesn’t have a soft touch. It just says, “You need to fix this. You need to change it.  Suck it up.”

Self-compassion is understanding. It is willing to flex and bend with the ups and downs of our feelings, unlike perfectionism which is rigid. It doesn’t see another way besides the “perfect”.

Self-compassion is curious. It asks through a loving, nonjudgmental lens. It wonders what is going on, and considers what may be triggering us. It stands outside, almost like a scientist, to notice. It doesn’t say, “What is wrong? Why can’t I get past this?”

Self-compassion is also fierce. I think we think of perfectionism as fierce, and ‘fierce’ can have this connotation of aggressiveness, harshness, or rudeness. When it is presented from the lens of God, however, fierceness is an incredibly important trait. I think of it as an intensity. It’s a dedication. Self-compassion stays in the mix and continues to work, even when it’s hard.

Lastly, self compassion is healing. It is the balm that we’re really seeking. We think that perfectionism means working harder, pulling out that whip and telling ourselves that we have to keep going – we think that’s helping us when it is really damaging us. It is breaking us down, rather than giving us God’s love.

[18:25] Bible verses related to self compassion

Here are several Bible verses that show the beauty of compassion and how prevalent it is in God himself, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. 

Exodus 34:6: The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.”

This is how God defines himself before Moses: a God of compassion, a God who is slow to anger. One who’s filled with unfailing love and faith.

Psalm 103:13 echoes that sentiment: The Lord is like a father to His children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

There is a compassionate, loving, caring side to our God that we cannot ever forget. It is every bit as active in the Holy Spirit. So that spirit is the spirit that we can begin to welcome in ourselves and with others.

Isaiah 30:18: So the Lord must wait for you to come to Him so He can show you His love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for His help.

This verse is talking about running away from God and trying to find our strength in other things besides God. But if we use this from the perspective of perfectionism, we can think about trying to fix this brokenness, this trauma inside of us, by continuing to push harder or continuing to ignore. We can continue to have other addictions or to be aggressive with ourselves, but God is telling us to let Him show us what it means to love and to have compassion.

Hosea 2:1:  I will make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion.

The whole book of Hosea is about the pursuit of God. It’s an allegory of a man pursuing his wife who is continually unfaithful, but it is about the pursuit of God for his unfaithful people of Israel. This verse sums it up with this commitment to compassion. It’s fierce. It stays there, even in rejection. It is not going anywhere, and that is powerful.

Mark 6:34, Jesus saw the huge crowd as He stepped from the boat, and He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So He began teaching them many things.

Luke 6:36: You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

Luke 15 contains the story of the prodigal son. He returned home to his father in verse 20, and while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. 

This story gets me every time, because I hope I would have responded as that father did. To be truly honest, though, it takes so much inner healing and knowing of ourselves and peace with God to respond in this compassionate, caring way. It echoes his ability to have peace with God over how the son had hurt him. If he was not able to receive that, he would receive his son with judgment. So we can see from that story that God forgives us. He wants to restore us and He allows us to come to Him broken. He offers us a compassionate spirit, not a harsh one.  

There are some great verses that talk about how we are called to live as compassionate people, as well.

Colossians 3:12, Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

While the word ‘compassion’ is not used here, those are all elements of compassion. We talked about patience and gentleness. Kindness is very similar to compassion. There is this overall spirit of God that we are to model, but not to evoke and create in ourselves. There is a huge difference. We are not summoning really deep and working really hard to create compassion. We are believing it in God first, and as it grows in us, we are then able to let that flow out to others.

It’s not about us working harder to be more compassionate, but rather about how it all flows from God.

James 3:17, But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 

This is the same spirit. It’s gentle and willing to yield, and it is the fruit of good deeds. It is the fruit of trusting in God.

In 1 Peter 3:4, we are told to clothe ourselves with a gentle and quiet spirit, which is a fruit of compassion.  

Ephesians 4:32 reminds us to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as Christ Jesus forgave us.

We are not given a heavy command that we are supposed to be compassionate and kind to other people. Our dedication to growing in Christ progresses from moral excellence up to brotherly love, and then the final thing is love for all people. This love has to come first from acceptance of what God puts in us before we can let it spill out to others.

There are so many verses on being kind and compassionate. Galatians 5:16-24 talks about the fruits of the Spirit and how, when we are led by the Spirit, we develop fruits of the Spirit. All of the things that are developed by the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – are the fruits of God’s spirit in us.

[26:23] Why it is so difficult for us to have self compassion

We can’t love others and be compassionate to them without first being loving and compassionate with ourselves. I know that seems like a very cliche, self-help kind of statement, but it’s radical. It requires a lot of fierceness and a lot of brutal honesty with what is happening inside of us. It’s really easy to say, “Love yourself more. Just be kinder to yourself.”  The question is, then, why am I not kind to myself? Why wouldn’t I love myself? There are all kinds of behaviors and coping mechanisms keeping us from loving ourselves and having self compassion. 

I had a client earlier this year who was really struggling with anger toward her kids. We talked about finding some self-care for her and how to build that up in her rhythm of busy mom life. She mentioned that she didn’t want to have this anger in her life anymore. The more she grew in learning and overcoming those mental patterns about why she was so busy, she felt like she was more good and worthy. Her anger dissipated because she was beginning to understand why her kids weren’t always responding the way she wanted. They had bad days too. She began to have grace for herself first, and then she could have grace for others.

We are called to witness and share God’s love in this world, and we cannot do that to the fullest extent if we are living under our own self-condemnation and perfectionism. We are not going to experience that freedom to live and to share the way God truly intends.

[29:30] Having enough self-compassion to cope with shame triggers

Let’s take a step back now, because your inner critic may be making itself known loud and clear. The inner critic may be receiving all of this not as something to consider, but rather as a prompt to think, “I should be different. Why aren’t I different? What’s wrong with me? This is bad. I’m a horrible Christian.”

It took me a long time to recognize that inner critic voice as the voice of shame. I am certainly not saying these things to increase the desire to be perfect or to increase shame. I want us to think about different solutions for some inner areas that need healing. There may be some shame triggers happening, and we don’t have to live like this. I want us to begin this self-compassion process.

If the inner critic is flaring, notice it. Think about how to respond to the inner critic with self-compassion rather than just saying we have to be different. First, we need to think about why the inner critic is there. The inner critic is often triggered as a way to protect us. We feel unsafe, and then we often want to respond quickly by going into our fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses.

For example, here’s how my inner critic responded to this idea of self-compassion. Self-compassion felt like a bunch of mumbo jumbo when I first heard about it. I thought it meant I had to feel sorry for myself, or see myself as broken or weak. As a perfectionist, I didn’t need to be told that I was broken or weak. I didn’t need more evidence of that, and I didn’t need to dwell on it. I refused to feel like I needed to sit in a corner crying because I couldn’t handle my life. Instead, I just felt frustrated with how I was acting and I never felt like I was enough. It felt counterintuitive to have compassion on myself in that state, because I was afraid that if I did that then I was excusing away my imperfection as being okay.

[33:59] Self-compassion as a mental clearing

That’s not what compassion is saying, though. Compassion is this space to enter into. It’s not saying we are fully fixed or that we have to be fully fixed to enter this space. It’s a space to sit in, to analyze, and to think about what could be in a nonjudgmental way.  

We can think of it as a mental clearing. God is not saying He wants us to stay in sin. He still wants us to change our behaviors. Yet He’s also saying, “I’m giving you this beautiful space to love you through that.” Self-compassion does not mean dismissing and saying all our behaviors are okay. It doesn’t mean seeing ourselves as broken or weak. It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for ourselves. All it means is giving ourselves an emotional place to be in and to allow God to heal and to work.

This was a helpful reframe for me because I then thought I could go to that place with all of my baggage, sit there, and let God love me through it. As painful and difficult as that was, I knew enough about myself and God to know that what I was doing wasn’t working. It wasn’t loving, and it wasn’t how God would respond to me. So I came up with a different way to move forward.

 [35:25] Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves

There has to be this understanding that we have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There are several verses that mention this in the Bible.

Galatians 5:14, For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is referred to as the greatest commandment. It is in Matthew, Mark, and I believe in Luke as well.

Leviticus 19:18, Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself.

When I was first introduced to this concept I was a scared 19-year-old young woman who was considering taking her life. I was sitting in a Christian counselor’s office, and I was telling her that I was so mad because I felt like I needed to change. I needed to be different, and I couldn’t fix myself. She kept talking about loving myself and I thought, ‘I don’t want to love myself because I am not good. I’m not what I want.’ I was wondering how God could love me.   

I want us to see the self-compassion and love that we are to put on ourselves as part of healthy, God-centered self-esteem. It’s not prideful, and it’s not “me first”. When we read about loving our neighbors, it’s usually about letting them go first. We can’t ever forget, however, that it assumes there is part of us having self compassion first and valuing ourselves so that we can love our neighbors.

[37:22] Believing in the compassion God has for us

Here is the key point: We don’t have to love ourselves into change or even into being more compassionate for ourselves. In order to welcome compassion into our deep hurts we need to believe in this compassion that God has for us. 

I know that feels scary, friends. I’m not diminishing that statement by saying it’s easy to make a snap decision to end perfectionism. I know there is difficulty around trusting and believing in God’s love. That is why we can’t solve all this in a podcast episode. There is a whole section of the Christian Mindset Makeover where we talk about the issue of why we get stuck, why we can’t trust, and why we don’t feel safe. We work through that and discover practical, brain-based, and Biblical ways to overcome that.

What I want to do is assure us that we don’t have to work harder to create self love or self-compassion. We need to connect to God and learn to let Him and His love and compassion fill us up. Self-compassion comes from seeing how God views us.

In the Christian Mindset Makeover, we have “I Am” statements about who we are in Christ. These are the things He thinks about us, the ways He sees us, and the ways He loves us. These “I Am” statements are one of the ways that we begin to reorganize our brains through that lens, and it dramatically changes our ability to love others, to love ourselves, and to have compassion through the difficult changes that we make in life. 

Stepping out of perfectionism isn’t just about learning to love yourself better. It’s about learning to tap into God’s love for you and His compassion for you first.

Here are some ways to get started in this process:

First, we can learn to welcome in God’s love and compassion. In order to cultivate self-compassion, we have to notice how that harsh perfectionist voice shows up. We don’t need to judge that voice, but we need to observe it from an outsider’s perspective. What does she sound like? What are some of the repeated patterns she has, and how are those related to those responses to trauma? What triggers here? What gets her going? What keeps her from believing in God’s love? What are some of those things?

Second, we need to ask ourselves what might this inner voice, inner perfectionist, or inner critic, be trying to protect us from?  What is she trying to keep us safe from? Then we can think about things like trauma – current, past “big T” traumas, “little t” traumas– all these things that trigger the fear response.

This is why when we do brain priming in the Christian Mindset Makeover Course we acknowledge why it makes sense that our brains feel this way. Our brains need to be heard, and if we fight against that the survival instinct will win. We have to acknowledge how this inner critic  is trying to protect us, and then ask ourselves if our responses are reasonable based on past and current trauma. 

We also have to ask ourselves what God, our loving and compassionate Father, has to say about the situation. How would He respond to us and our perfectionistic voices? Would he tell us, “What is wrong with you? You’re so dumb. Why can’t you fix this?”  Would He respond that way?

Lastly, we have to consider how we can begin to make this a new mindset and inner thought pattern. How can we remove the old patterns of harsh thinking and perfectionism in order to welcome in this new pattern?  

This is exactly what we talk about in the Christian Mindset Makeover. So if you haven’t checked out the course, I highly encourage you to join us now (we are open for enrollment!). Listen, this course is HOW to begin to create a specific plan to welcome in things like self-compassion and heal from perfectionism. This 9-week course is based on both brain science and biblical truth to help you cultivate the thought life that encourages life and godliness! 

Check it out here. 

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About Alicia Michelle

Alicia Michelle is a certified NeuroCoach™, Bible teacher, speaker and host of the Vibrant Christian Living Podcast and You Tube Show. More importantly, she’s a lover of Jesus, a wife of 20 years to her best friend, and mom of four amazing kids ages 18 to 9. Alicia struggled with overthinking, negative thoughts and “being enough” for most of her adult life until God radically transformed her heart after a life-threatening medical crisis. Now through her signature courses and coaching programs she loves equipping women with practical, scientific and biblically-based mindset tools to help them overcome negative thought patterns and discover more confident, joyful lives in Christ. Listen to her on the podcast or on You Tube; download great resources at VibrantChristianLiving.com; and connect on Facebook and Instagram.

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