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A Mindfulness Exercise to Reduce Perfectionism

By Katie Bendel, LMSW

Perfectionists love to act as though they have it “all together.” But, inside, they are suffering. See how mindfulness can reduce perfectionism.

We all have core beliefs that operate a little bit like invisible glasses. Our core beliefs reflect our basic values or “life rules,” and have usually stayed the same for most of our lives. We develop our perception of reality through this lens. The fascinating part is, we are generally not aware of our core beliefs even though they play such a significant role in how move through the world. Because we’re not aware of these beliefs, we’re not really used to questioning them even if they are getting in our way. We don’t know what we don’t know!

 We don’t see things as they are – we see things as we are. – Anaïs Nin

You may be wondering, what if we want to know what we don’t know? Mindfulness can help – it is the practice of allowing ourselves to observe and reflect in the moment. It helps us learn more about ourselves, the way we think, and the way we act. If our core beliefs or perceptions of reality are getting in the way of our lives -- especially of us being able to maintain our mental and physical health -- it’s usually helpful to take some time to examine them. Mindfulness empowers us to learn and move forward.

There is truth in all viewpoints, and not all viewpoints are true. –  Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher

In Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT), there is an emphasis on a specific type of mindfulness called self-enquiry. In this type of mindfulness practice, we ask ourselves questions to help us find our “edge” -- a place where we have room to grow, or something to learn. Practicing this radical openness helps us actively seek the things we want to avoid so that we can learn. It may not sound very fun on paper, but it helps us challenge our perceptions of reality. It helps us learn more about what we don’t know. If you self-identify as a perfectionist, or have trouble letting go, being flexible, or taking chances, RO-DBT is designed for you (although anyone can learn from it).

Moving from perfectionism to flexible thinking

For those of us that identify as perfectionistic, we have plenty of self-control. In fact, we could argue we have a little too much self-control. We’re often seen as hard working and high achieving -- able to carry a lot on our shoulders. The truth is, we often feel like we must carry everything on our shoulders. On the outside, we may say that we are fine and we’ve “got it,” but on the inside we know that’s not true. We may cope by masking our feelings, seeking perfection, and – at all costs – avoiding risks. In RO-DBT terms, this is referred to as an overcontrolled personality and way of coping. RO-DBT is designed to help us learn about these parts of ourselves, and move toward more flexibility.

What mind state are you typically in?

When others try to give those of us with an overcontrolled personalities constructive feedback, or try to help us see our blind spots, we might not react very openly before we’ve practiced self-enquiry. In RO-DBT, we think about these different reactions as “mind states.” We have: 

  • Fixed mind state -- This is when we already have made our mind up, and we think we don’t need others’ feedback because we believe we already have all the answers.
  • Fatalistic mind state -- This is when we give the silent treatment or agree out loud even if we don’t agree internally. When we’re in fatalistic mind state we might think, “All is hopeless, so why even try?”
  • Flexible mind state -- In this state, our thought is, “There might be something for me to learn here.”

I’m not saying it’s bad to have a fixed mind, especially if it relates back to our values and boundaries. I’m also not saying it’s completely bad to have a fatalistic mind. It’s really about having more information to help us understand that we might need a rest or reset. If we get stuck in a fixed or fatalistic mind state, we’re always there, and never anywhere else. That’s when we need to be mindful of working toward having a flexible mind.

What are some primary warning signs that we might be stuck in a fixed mind state?

  • Feeling threatened.
  • Physical tension in the body -- often in response to feeling threatened.

What can we do to move toward a flexible mind state?

  • Use self-enquiry. Ask questions to try and understand why you might be in fixed mind.
  • Acknowledge you’re fighting and resisting something without mindlessly letting go of your point of view.
  • Gently remember that when you’re in fixed mind your thoughts, emotions, urges, and sensations are determined by your past.
  • Remind yourself that being in fixed mind alerts us to those things in our life we need to be more open to in order to improve ourselves or to learn.
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Rather than resisting, fixing, or defending your fixed mind in the moment, allow it to be.
  • Forgive yourself for being in fixed mind; remember that we all have a fixed mind at some point.

What are primary warning signs we might be stuck in a fatalistic mind state?

  • Feeling unappreciated, invalidated, misunderstood, or helpless. Feeling like a martyr or victim. Feeling resentful, bitter, or cynical about change. Feeing numbed out or shut down completely.
  • Thinking everything will be fine, despite repeated feedback that there is a serious problem. Believing change isn’t possible, so why bother. Believing others need to change first.
  • Secret urges to make unrealistic promises for self-improvement to stop the feedback, even though there is no intention of filling those promises. Having urges to punish the person(s) providing feedback.

What can we do to move toward a flexible mind state?

  • Remember that fatalistic mind is the opposite of resisting or flighting. It is our “escape artist,” using abandonment as the solution. It thrives on denial and self-deception. It allows us to feel virtuous for giving up, or to avoid admitting that we’re avoiding something.
  • Recognize that fatalistic mind is not bad. It can help us recognize times when we are pushing ourselves too hard, or may need to grieve a loss, and it can alert us to areas in our life that require change.
  • Open your mind to what your pain might be telling you.
  • Let go of longing for the world to change or secretly hoping that the problem will go away. Accept responsibility for your part.
  • Turn your mind to the possibility of change, and clarify the steps needed to solve the problem.
  • Fatalistic mind thrives on secrecy. So, reveal your thoughts and urges to another person.

As you practice being mindful and asking yourself questions, here are some helpful tips.

  • Come from a place of curiosity and learning. Ask yourself questions to try and understand how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and what you’re experiencing or imagining could happen.
  • Be aware of making harsh judgments that are getting in your way.
  • Allow yourself to slow down. Participate in the moment without planning, without needing to rehearse or “get it right.”

Remember that we all have unique, invisible glasses. No one is bad for having them. They are what they are! Mindfulness empowers us to learn and move forward with an enhanced understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Thank you to Dr. Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher for presenting “Skills from RO-DBT: Putting It Into Practice” at the Pathlight Conference on Mental Health. A large portion of this blog was adapted from, and inspired by, her work. See Dr. Astrachan-Fletcher's “Radically Open DBT Workbook for Eating Disorders” here.

Sources

Bhattacharya, L., Chaudari, B., Saldanha, D., & Menon, P. (2013). Cognitive behavior therapy. Medical Journal of Dr. D. Y. Patil University. 6(2), 132-138. 10.4103/0975-2870.110294

Lynch, T. R. (2018). Radically open dialectical behavior therapy skills manual. New Harbinger Press

Lynch, T. R. (2018). Radically open dialectical behavior therapy: Theory and practice for treating disorders of overcontrol. New Harbinger Press

Written by

Katie Bendel, LMSW

Katie believes that recovery and wellness are best developed and reinforced by community with others, and connection to core values such as authenticity, creativity, persistence, and trust. Her goal…

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