The problem with having high standards

If you’re anything like most of my patients, you strive to do a good job in life. You want to be a good parent, achieve success at work, keep your commitments, feed your household nutritious foods, have quality time with your family, be a good friend. Everything you do, you want to do well. You’re not satisfied giving a half-hearted attempt, or leaving things incomplete.

But you don’t have time to do all of that. You stay back at work late to finish things off and make more progress. You answer emails until 9pm so that they don’t pile up even more. You struggle to prioritise the most important projects because it comes at the expense of other things that you’re not willing to let go or accept a lower standard.

Most people who come to me for burnout counselling struggle with the impossibly high standards of perfectionism. This is inevitably accompanied by a harsh inner critic, reminding them of every perceived failure, weakness, or inadequacy.

Have you ever paid attention to that voice in your head? Have you ever thought about whether or not you are kind to yourself? Most people have thought about whether they are kind to others, and believe it’s important to be kind to others; but while our mind constantly chatters away, we often take little notice of how it speaks about ourselves. If you listen for a while, you’ll realise that you can be downright mean and nasty to yourself, with very little kindness of compassion. 

The concept of being kind to yourself might even feel uncomfortable. It can feel self-indulgent, self-pitying, selfish, or just a bit silly. If we can get past those barriers and begin to show some self-kindness, then we can reap some great benefits.

Self-compassion might be different to what you imagine. It’s not all about cups of tea and massages. It’s not all about loving yourself and being self-indulgent, or making excuses for whichever behaviours or actions you selfishly want to exhibit. Self-compassion, as understood by leading researcher Kristin Neff, requires three key elements:

  • A sense of kindness, care, and understanding for yourself, as opposed to self-judgement.
  • A sense of common humanity and understanding that we all suffer and it is part of the normal human condition; as opposed to feeling isolated and cut off from others, and feeling like suffering isn’t normal (“why me?”).
  • A sense of mindfulness – being aware of the suffering that’s occurring and allowing yourself to experience it and acknowledge it, as opposed to trying to remove or suppress the suffering, or go straight into problem-solving mode.

Self-compassion isn’t something you either have or do not have. It’s a skill that can be learned and strengthened. If you can enhance your ability to show yourself kindness, then it helps you to cope with difficult circumstances, to cope with criticism and low self-esteem, and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.

When you show compassion to yourself it helps you to view life more positively, and notice the glimpses of goodness and hope around you, rather than having your thoughts caught up in self-pitying or thinking about how bad life is.

People often think that self-criticism in relation to your mistakes and faults is helpful in changing your behaviour, leading to growth and future success. But it’s been found that self-compassion is actually much more effective at motivating ourselves than self-punishment. Self-compassion gives us the emotional space to change and grow without negativity and self-doubt.

The benefits extend beyond our own personal thoughts and experiences, and reach into the lives of others. If you show self-compassion, you will tend to show more compassion toward others, and see the benefits as this improves your relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers.

While perfectionist traits lead to self-criticism and lower levels of self-compassion, this by no means renders those traits useless or wholly negative. Those same traits have likely driven you to achieve great success, and to demonstrate characteristics such as reliability, efficiency, and being organised. The aim here is not to somehow rid yourself of perfectionism and high standards. The goal is to embrace the positive aspects, and use them as a great strength, but to simultaneously be aware of the potential drawbacks and endeavour to minimise them. If you can master self-compassion, then your perfectionism will help you in achieving what you most want in life.

The first step to improving your level of self-compassion is to increase your awareness. Keep an eye out for that negative self-talk – phrases like “I’m so hopeless”, “I’ll never get this right”, and “I always mess up”. Take note of situations where you set yourself up for failure by expecting standards you know you can never meet up to. You might like to complete the Self-compassion Scale Questionnaire, to get an indication of your level of self-compassion compared to most other people.