Try these simple steps to go from perfectionism to presence.
Getting into a meditative state is hard enough. Add perfectionism to the mix, and you may feel like giving up before you begin.
When you’re the type who likes to do things just so, the mantra that “there’s no right or wrong way to meditate” can be a bit maddening. Those of us with perfectionistic tendencies often want a rulebook for getting from A to zen — which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, perfectionists may put off meditation, waiting for the ideal time to take up a practice.
If your drive for perfection is getting in the way of calming your mind, there’s hope! Here’s a look at some of the benefits of meditation for perfectionists, plus eight tips for developing a vibrant practice.
“First and foremost, mindfulness meditation helps a person to become more aware of their thoughts,” says psychotherapist Paige Rechtman, LMHC. “Many people don’t realize they are having perfectionist thoughts, so one of the best side effects of meditating is learning to be aware of those perfectionist thoughts that aren’t serving you.”
Tuning into the chatter inside your head presents you with an opportunity: Would you like to make some adjustments to your self-talk?
“After becoming aware of perfectionist thoughts, you can learn to observe them in a new way, so you don’t become enmeshed in them — meaning you get better at separating yourself from your thoughts, so you don’t have to believe them or give into them,” Rechtman explains.
Another school of thought teaches that meditation can simply help you accept yourself for who you are, perfectionistic tendencies and all.
“Meditation isn’t about being the opposite of yourself; it’s more about accepting,” says meditation and yoga instructor Brenda Umana, MPH, RYT-500.
“What would happen if you fully acknowledged and accepted this [perfectionistic] side of yourself? I think in that inquiry, that’s where the fruits live,” says Umana. “Something that may have this big hold on you — like perfectionism — can start to un-grip.”
Ready to reap meditation’s mental health benefits? Consider these strategies tailor-made for perfectionists:
Gratitude has a way of grounding us in what’s good instead of what’s perfect. It’s no surprise that incorporating appreciation in meditation can be helpful for perfectionists.
“The perfectionist is often thinking of the future or is prone to anxiety because something can always be better,” says Umana. “Including a gratitude component, even something as simple as ‘I’m grateful to breathe right now,’ can really start to shift the tendency to perfect everything.”
As you sit down to your chosen meditation spot, simply offer thanks to yourself for taking the time to do something for yourself.
Even if you feel like your session was lackluster, try to find one thing about it that benefited you once you wrap up.
By doing so, you’ll flip the script of self-criticism.
“Gratitude gives the body and mind the opposite messaging of the inner critic voice, which is often really loud for perfectionists,” says Umana.
Start with a guided meditation
It’s tough to simply hit the floor and instantly bliss out, no matter who you are. Those new to meditation and those with perfectionistic tendencies may find it easier to go through a session with a guide.
Whether online or in-person, a guided meditation provides you with a framework of instructions — a boon for those who prefer structure and rules.
Even better, the gentle voice on a video or audio session will often chime in to remind you that whatever is happening — racing thoughts, distraction, impatience — is OK.
“This is a really great place to start, because you won’t feel as alone as you move through those perfectionist thoughts,” says Rechtman.
Try “I am” statements
All too often, those of us who strive for high achievement are straining toward the future. This may be a future version of ourselves or a future situation in life.
According to Umana, incorporating affirming “I am” statements brings us back to the present. That’s the whole point of meditation.
Umana suggests meditating on the following phrases:
- I am exactly where I need to be in life
- I am perfect just as I am
- I am safe in my body
- I am open to change
Intentionally do something “wrong” (yes, really!)
As counterintuitive as it may sound, choosing to do something “wrong” on purpose during meditation might actually work to your advantage.
Try not following every one of your guide’s instructions or intentionally indulging in a daydream for a few moments, rather than abiding in the present.
Then take stock:
- Did everything go haywire as a result?
- Was your meditation a total bust?
- Did you still benefit from practicing?
Your answers are likely, “No, no, and yes.”
Once you realize things didn’t go off the rails from one mistake, it can alleviate the pressure to do everything perfectly.
Non-judgment is a hallmark of a mindfulness-based meditation practice. For perfectionists, this can be the hardest element to master.
When your inner taskmaster is telling you you’re not good enough or berating you for being unable to let go of perfectionistic tendencies, consider the concept of radical acceptance.
“When we try to let go of something but just can’t do it, it can make us feel worse,” says Rechtman. “Instead, think about acceptance.”
Rechtman suggests asking:
- What would it feel like to accept the fact that letting go isn’t working right now?
- What would it feel like to accept the perfectionist part of you in this moment?
- How does it feel to accept that what you’re doing is hard?
“Accept, accept, accept,” she says. How’s that for a one-word mantra?
No one developed mindfulness by being harsh with themselves. Compassion is a key tenet of all meditation traditions, and for good reason.
When we experience compassion for ourselves and others, we break down the barriers of judgment that keep us feeling unworthy, not enough, and separate.
True unconditional compassion is just that — unconditional. That means it’s not based on how well you perform, how straight you sit, or how long you hold your pose even while your legs fall asleep.
When you cultivate a sense of compassion for yourself, you become free of the rigidity of right and wrong, allowing yourself to be just as you are.
Practice “beginner’s mind”
In his classic book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” Shunryu Suzuki writes about approaching meditation from a fresh perspective each time you sit as if you’ve never practiced before.
He warned that it’s our preconceptions about meditation — how to do it, whether we’re “good” it — that prevent us from being fully present.
When we come to each practice with the mind of the beginner, there’s nothing to hold on to, push away, or grasp for. We’re simply sitting with whatever arises.
Keep at it!
If you’re a perfectionist, not meeting your own expectations right from the start may tempt you to kick meditation to the curb. But don’t forget that there’s a reason it’s called a “practice.”
Just keep sitting with whatever comes up. That, in itself, is enough.
Tuning into your inner self and quieting the mind really does get easier over time. Even if practice doesn’t make it perfect, that might be a very good thing.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.