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  • paulinethepsychologist

Tips for Managing Relational Perfectionism #2

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

We’ve been talking about relational perfectionism and the ways in which society encourages this this way of thinking, the way therapy helps us investigate this thinking, and then beginning to practice mindful introspection about what’s fueling this for us. We’ve learned to notice, acknowledge/appreciate, look deeper at feelings through our body and now, we can…

4. Take a deep breath - or more like, three.

Once you have a sense of what you are actually feeling - both physically and emotionally - breathing is the next step. Actually, it doesn’t have to be linear. Once you are aware that you are feeling, start breathing, even if it takes you a while to figure out what’s going on.

Three deep diaphragmatic breaths, where your belly expands on the inhale and deflates on the exhale, can activate your parasympathetic nervous system response.

*To remember this system, I think of a parachute coming down. This is your rest and digest system versus the sympathetic system which is your fight and flight – the system that gets triggered when you feel threatened and unsafe.

We breathe in this deep way when we are relaxed and at rest (watch a baby or a puppy sleeping and you’ll see their bellies rise and fall), so breathing this way when we are feeling activated tells our brains, we are safe …”It’s rough right now, but you’re actually ok.”

Adding an audible sigh to the exhale is great too as it helps you to let go of some of the tension, tightness, and discomfort that has likely been stirred up. That’s because it massages the vagus nerve (insert some witty comment about Las Vegas). This is the longest nerve in your body and is a linked to the parasympathetic response. This nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so when you sigh, sing, or chant, you massage your vagus nerve and help your body get into a relaxed state.

It might be helpful to actually stop what you’re doing for a second. Taking a pause is a great way to reset and regroup. Does anyone remember when Zach Morris would yell, “time out” on Saved by the Bell? – old reference but this always make me think of that.

From this state, you have so many choices available to you. Again, who do want in charge of decision-making, your primitive lizard or your CEO?

When our brains are stressed and in fight or flight, we “flip our lid” (watch Dr. Dan Siegel explain the brain and the disintegration that can happen here). We then lose our ability to regulate our body, gain emotional balance, and have psychological flexibility.

From a place of centeredness, achieved through breathing, we can actually respond with something different than the usual default (perfectionism) which isn’t working for us. Instead we can…

5. Respond with self-compassion

Self-compassion is a powerful antidote to the anxiety, self-judgment, and critical responding that starts becoming automated with perfectionism. I will write a blog about this in the future too (I’m all promises, aren’t I?!) but a quick note that self-compassion is composed of:

1. Mindfulness – a conscious awareness of what you are feeling when you are feeling it (thus, all the work in the previous steps) without judgment

This looks like saying, “Wow, I really urgently want this to go perfectly – look how quickly I am moving. I am feeling the pressure and urgency in my body”

2. Self-kindness – responding to yourself with kindness and gentleness rather than harsh criticism and judgment

“Of course, I would want things to go well, I care about this and it’s important to me. But it’s less important that I am perfect and more important that I am genuine. I am a worthy and valuable person.”

3. Common humanity – a recognition that despite our individuality, all humans want and need and feel some of the same things (love, fear, safety, etc.).

“Most people want to present themselves in a good light and its pretty universal to want to be liked. Ultimately, everyone wants to be accepted and its okay to feel nervous about it. At some point, most people do!”

A ton more on self-compassion here on the website of famous researcher Dr. Kristin Neff.

Responding with self-compassion keeps us in a grounded place. 

It makes sense. 

Which would make you feel calmer while trying to perform a difficult task under pressure: someone yelling at you about how stupid you are or someone calmly saying,I can see that you’re trying and it’s tough. Keep going.?


So let’s recap.

Once you have a clearer picture of the when and where and how of your perfectionism, and you understand that it is serving a function (no matter how many problems it is also creating), then you can be curious about and connect to the feelings fueling it. Once you have done that, you can pour a healthy dose of self-compassion on those feelings from a place of comfort and nourishment.

It’s like putting some healing cool aloe vera on a very inflamed and ouchy (it’s a word) sun burn. Your soul will respond with AHHHH!!! Well maybe after, this is cold and different and I am not used to this and will it work, and this feels pointless and other thoughts, but after a while of practice and continuing to apply, it’ll heal and become like a second skin.

Getting to the point where you choose to breathe rather than automatically react is HUGE. HUGE. Let me say again, HUGE.

The brain grows through small, repetitive actions rather than one big action so each time you take one breath or a single pause or turn the station from the rough tunes of critical judgment to the gentler notes of kind self-compassion, you are paving the path to change.

Rest in that for a while.

Next blog – where to go from there.

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