Perfectionists often believe that the only way they are going to motivate themselves to keep succeeding at a high rate is to be hard on themselves. I can’t tell you how many perfectionists tell me that they secretly believe — they know — that if they stopped being cruel slave-drivers towards themselves they would instantly become lazy couch potatoes. They truly believe that their core selves are inert, un-ambitious, slobs that, if given free reign, will start an un stoppable slide towards destitution and despair. Maybe you believe this too.
This is a common superstitious belief, and I’m here to tell you it is not true. Research shows that motivating yourself through kindness, compassion, and positive reinforcement actually produces much better results than motivating through criticism and “shoulds.” A recent study out of UCBerkeley found that students who struggled with a difficult test and then practiced self-compassion were more willing and able to take actions to improve their performance or fix their mistakes. A study in Social Neuroscience journal showed that critical coaching activated the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system that is the seat of anxiety and fear), while compassionate coaching relaxed the nervous system and lit up the parts of the brain that control creativity, big-picture thinking, and goal visualizing. Put another way, critical coaching activates the “avoidance” system, where we move away from scary things and limit our risk-taking due to fear; compassionate coaching activates the “approach” system, where we are more open, creative, willing to take risks.
Compassion not only puts us in a frame of mind to be more willing and motivated to improve, it actually makes us physiologically more capable of success. Being in a relaxed state (parasympathetic nervous system activation) makes people more creative and better at handling complex cognitive concepts. When people are in fight or flight, as they usually are after criticism, heart rate rises, cortisol is released, and blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for cognition decreases. Despite our beliefs to the contrary, we really don’t do our best thinking under stress and duress.
So if you find yourself motivating yourself with endless “shoulds” and criticisms, try to catch yourself in the act, take a breath, and try a different way. Start by acknowledging that the task at hand is hard or unpleasant or daunting in some way, and offering yourself as much compassion as you can muster for any difficulties you are having. See what it’s like to re-approach the task from this new, more relaxed mindset. Is it different than shoulding all over yourself?