• Connie P. Edens LCSW LLC | 485 B Carlisle Drive, Herndon, Virginia 20170 | Phone: (571) 306-2334

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      Connie Edens

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      Feeling Like You’re Not Enough? Start With Self Compassion

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      We’ve all been there. That moment when we feel so defeated, so exposed or so discouraged, like it’s about to swallow us whole.  That’s the moment we needed to start with self compassion

      You arrive late to the team meeting, and then your boss asks you to give an update on the project you didn’t know you had been assigned two weeks ago. 

      To make your seven year-old’s favorite unicorn cake for her birthday party you stay up late following the complicated Pinterest recipe and you get up early to decorate it, just in time to take it to the party–only to hear the cake slide off the seat and land upside down as you hit the brakes to avoid a fender bender.

      You are beating yourself up after it becomes obvious (to you, anyway) that you have fallen short again. You don’t measure up to how others are doing–to how beautiful she looks, how successful he is, how bright and well-behaved their child is. As we critique ourselves, underneath all of that we’re thinking some version of “I’m not enough” or “Who I am is just not okay.”

      We All Have These Thoughts

      At some point beginning in childhood everyone has thoughts like this and the feelings that go with them. According to clinical psychologist and professor Dr. Steven Hayes, developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), “If you really got people to speak honestly, the I’m-not-good-enough story is almost universal.” Similarly, pioneering self-compassion researcher, author, and associate professor Dr. Kristin Neff, says feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal”.  

      We have forgotten who we really are: creatures who are as beautiful and worthy of love and belonging as we were the moment we were born, when our parents and every one who saw us adored everything about us–from our oddly shaped heads to our delicately and perfectly formed little toes. Psychologist Tara Brach, author of the book Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love that Heals Fear and Shame, says we are in the “trance of unworthiness”, not aware of how our thoughts, emotions and bodies have become frozen in a state of not measuring up and a fear of failing. We can never really relax because of the feeling we need to be doing something to be better and to avoid the sense of failure looming right around the corner.

      All three of these experts tell personal stories of how they wrestled with these difficult feelings. Each discovered ways to navigate their struggles, and then through their professions they made their discoveries widely accessible. Dr. Steven Hayes helps his clients get in touch with how old they were when they first felt this sense of “not enough”. Then he helps them speak with compassion and care toward this younger self.

      Learning Self Compassion

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      So how do we learn to speak compassionately to ourselves? Or maybe you’re thinking, “Why would I do that, since I don’t deserve it?” I get it. That is exactly how many of us feel who most need self compassion.

      Having compassion for oneself is actually just like having compassion for another person. Before we can act with compassion toward someone, we must notice their suffering rather than ignore it. For example, I can’t have compassion for my newly widowed neighbor next door if I ignore her or avoid having any contact with her. Once I see her I can feel compassion for how sad and lonely she must be. Second, we feel compassion when our heart is touched, so that we are moved to respond with warmth, caring and the intention to help the person. Having compassion also means that we reach out with kindness and understanding rather than judgment of the person or his situation. Third, true compassion (rather than mere pity), according to Dr. Neff, “means you realize that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of the shared human experience.” Self compassion has the same three actions, each directed toward oneself.

      Mindfulness

      The first step is to Practice mindfulness. “Mindfulness” is simply noticing what I experience in the present moment–in my environment, body, thoughts and feelings–without judging or evaluating.  We cannot ignore our pain or try to get rid of our pain and feel compassion toward it at the same time. So we tune in to the sensations in our bodies, the emotions we are feeling, and the thoughts going through our heads, and we act as a compassionate observer of our own experience. Examples of what I might say to myself are:

        • My chest feels tight.
        • My heart feels heavy and there’s a lump in my throat.
        • I feel humiliated and I wish I could disappear.
        • I feel angry and frustrated with myself.
        • I am thinking “Why can’t I just do this like everyone else?”
        • I am having the thought “What’s wrong with me?!”

      Then I say gently to myself, “I am in suffering right now.”

      We’re All In This Together

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      Second, know that you are not alone, as in “We are all in this together.” We need to remind ourselves that going through pain is actually a normal part of being human. Suffering is a normal part of life. We all had imperfect parents or caregivers who, because of their own wounds and fears, were not completely tuned into our emotional needs and relayed a version of the message: You must be a certain way or do things in exactly the right way in order to be completely accepted and loved. So it makes sense many of us struggle with feeling ‘not enough’ at various times in our lives, especially as we go through periods of loss, change or life transition. These are experiences common to all of us as humans. We must choose to “embrace our common humanity”, according to Dr. Neff.

      Self Kindness: Heartfulness

      Finally, practice self kindness, rather than being our own harshest critic. Tara Brach uses the word “heartfulness” to described the action of coming back to the the present moment, and then holding what we see with tenderness and compassion. She says “you might think of it as two questions: “What is happening right now?” and “Can I be with this and regard it with kindness?

      Heartfulness is noticing that I am in a difficult place of fear, self-judging, or even feeling disgusted with myself, and then lovingly choosing to “regard it with kindness”. To make the leap to acting with love and heartfulness toward ourselves, it can help to imagine how we would feel if we were sitting with our closest friend caught in self judgment and shame. What would we say to our friend? Neff suggests saying things like, “I’m here for you. It’s gonna be okay. I care about you.”

      Self Compassion Changes Us

      These practices of self compassion do not come easily, and yet as we continue to practice them they change us. Literally. Research by Helen Rockliff and associates showed that when feelings of self compassion were generated through visualization, participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased. Even more compelling, Dr. Neff’s self compassion research showed that “people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about their future. In short, they have better mental health.” As a recovering perfectionist I admit I was surprised when I first learned self compassion makes this much of a difference in a person’s mental health! Now, instead of berating myself when feelings of inadequacy show up that once hijacked me, I give myself a break and choose to practice self compassion. Yes, it can still feel like I’m being too easy on myself, but I can definitely live with feeling a little more joy. How about you?

      I help clients learn to treat themselves with kindness and compassion. To learn about the Depression Treatment I offer and how it can help you begin to practice self compassion, click here.

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      Is Perfectionism Stealing Your Joy?

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      With Perfectionism Along for the Ride, Getting Started Can Be Hard!

      I began writing this blog post exactly three months ago today. This being the first blog entry, I wanted to really nail it, rather than just knocking out a few paragraphs so I could get over the hump of writing the first post. I wanted it to be thorough, while also being authentic and conveying my expertise. I wanted it to be … well, I guess–”perfect”. Oops.

      Except as you can see, one result of wanting to do something perfectly–whether we admit it or not–can be that we avoid doing “the thing” because we worry it won’t measure up to the high standard we have set for ourselves–or the standard we imagine others have for us. (Procrastination can be a sign of perfectionism, so look for a future post on that.) Perfectionism can be a trap we fall into over and over again without even realizing it, myself included, which is why I call myself a recovering perfectionist.

      As I write this first post, I am putting to rest that this post–or any future post–is about “conveying my expertise”(!). You can find plenty of “expertise” out there about perfectionism and for that matter any other topic I may write about. In this space I want to share about common challenges life brings that impact who we are and how we show up in our work and relationships. The only way possible to do life is imperfectly (Yes, that one seems painfully obvious!).  And I am admitting the obvious: The only way to write posts here is imperfectly. So let’s dive in!

      Let’s start by looking together at what perfectionism really is (and is not). Then let’s look at what causes some of us to become perfectionists. What is our perfectionism actually doing for us… to us… and to our relationships?

      What is perfectionism?

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      Researchers have identified at least five attitudes and beliefs common to perfectionists:

      • Excessive concern about making mistakes;
      • Indecisiveness and second-guessing themselves;
      • Setting unreasonably high personal standards;
      • Perceiving their parents as having high expectations and being highly critical; and
      • Concern with neatness and organization.

      Do you identify with some of these? To me, none of these sound “too bad”, at least not taken one at a time. If you overlook indecisiveness/second-guessing, these seem like they can be helpful in motivating a person to accomplish great things. Some researchers have identified “adaptive perfectionism” as beneficial. But what is actually underneath perfectionism?

      Perfectionism and Shame. Huh?

      I distinctly remember how I felt in 2012 the moment I first heard author and researcher Brene Brown in one of her TED talks say “Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism”. My brain tried to process that sentence. I knew I was a recovering perfectionist, which I still felt a teeny bit proud of. I had learned in therapy many years earlier that perfectionism was not my friend. But shame? “What? Why would she say that?”, I thought to myself. I didn’t believe shame was something I experienced much if at all as a child, and I certainly didn’t as an adult. When I digested Brene Brown’s definition of shame, though, I got it. From her research, she defined shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

      What does shame have to do with perfectionism?  Everything. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown defines perfectionism as

      “a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”

      Elsewhere Brown refers to perfectionism as a “twenty ton shield that we lug around”, because we believe it protects us from being hurt. When a person feels shame, the impulse is to hide. So perfectionism keeps us from being seen, since we use it to hide that we are human and imperfect. Its weight can crush us on the inside as we try so hard to look good on the outside.

      Faulty Logic feeds Perfectionism

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      Perfectionism can become addictive when we buy into its faulty logic, which says the reason for the blame or criticism directed our way is that “we just weren’t perfect enough”. When we don’t meet our own or others’ unreasonably high expectations, we critically judge ourselves. To get out of this low place, we try harder and harder to do things perfectly. We find ourselves slaves to “What will people think?”, or myths like “I must do things perfectly to prove I am a worthwhile person”. When perfectionism is in charge, it tells us it is a healthy and useful quality to possess, since it drives us to work hard to accomplish our goals by meeting our high standards, which we are proud of.

      Perfectionism is NOT Healthy Striving for Excellence

      Okay, it’s true that perfectionists do have some very desirable traits. We love it when we are seen as dependable, responsible, persevering, motivated, tenacious, and detail oriented. Research has shown, however, that perfectionism actually gets in the way of achievement. In the long run, there is no such thing as “adaptive perfectionism”. Perfectionism does NOT lead to life satisfaction, positive self-esteem, or positive affect (happiness). On the contrary, research has found that perfectionism is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addiction. Healthy striving for excellence comes from a place inside us where our natural abilities, strengths, and creativity want to be expressed in a form that can be a gift to others. Perfectionism, on the other hand, comes from a place of shame and fear–fear of being seen, fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, or some variation of these.

      Perfectionism is a Thief, But You CAN Get Your Life Back!!

      When we do what it says, perfectionism can steal SO MUCH of our life from us. When we believe we aren’t worthy of love and belonging unless we earn it by living, working, or looking perfectly–meeting unreasonably high standards–perfectionism can rob our lives of love, joy, creativity, fun, compassion for others, self confidence, and most of all, connection with our partner, friends, family, and even our sense of spiritual connection.

      When we see how perfectionism works and we finally notice it while it is happening (yay!), we may then be tempted to beat ourselves up for being a perfectionist–shaming ourselves more. Instead of adding yet another layer of critical thoughts and negative feelings, we can just notice that our old “friend” perfectionism has paid us another visit in the form of that familiar thought and the urge to “do it perfectly”. Then we can celebrate that we are on the path toward recovering our freedom and joy. Perfectionism still shows up every day for me, but it no longer has the power to run my life and take me down like it once did. Can it be a little scary to just ignore what perfectionism says and do something only “good enough”?  Absolutely.

      Once we discover how perfectionism has been at work in our lives to bring us pain instead of the joy and connection we long for, we are ready to begin the process of recovery and even transformation! In the next post, we will look at where to begin: “heartfulness” and self compassion.

      To learn more about Anxiety Therapy and how it can help you overcome perfectionism, click here.