Getting a Good Grip on Your Worth—Or Battling Perfectionism From the Standpoint of the Non Negotiable

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

There’s a clip that I use in sessions. I keep coming back to it. So, I’m just going to pause during my lunch break here and get this post out before entering into a block of sessions this afternoon.

The clip is less than a minute in length. Anytime I use multimedia I ask for permission from my clients and try to keep it to a minimum. I also only use something if I think it applies. As we know with the learning process in general, sometimes it helps with learning to go over the same material but in a different way.

Here’s the clip. Brené Brown, of course, has gained in popularity over the past several years. I have so many other readings that, admittedly, I haven’t taken the time to go through all of her stuff and in some sense, I feel like I’ve come across the material that she presents in other ways. 

But, in the above clip she’s talking about value, one’s own perceived value. I incorporate a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy in sessions (CBT) and what Brené says at the beginning of this clip is very much CBT oriented. She says: If you go through the world looking for evidence that you don’t belong you will always find it.

What I point out to my clients is that you can fill in the blank with all sorts of replacements: “If you go through the world looking for evidence that __________”

-you are weak
-you are powerless
-you are bad
-you are inadequate
-you are a failure

Then she goes on to say “Our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people, we carry those inside of our hearts.” I think that people who sometimes come in with issues related to self-esteem find themselves in life in some ways battling with someone or something over their self-worth.

I see that as entering the “negotiation phase” as Brené Brown says. The automatic thinking goes something like this: “Well my boss did call me in to point out that I better improve my performance in this area and if I don’t I could possibly get laid off, so I must be a failure” or “My wife told me that if I don’t lose the weight she’s going to leave” or “I have difficulties letting people get close to me because they will find out how deeply flawed I am.”

In all of these fictionalized examples, the person speaking has placed a condition on their worth based on different situations they find themselves in. The underlying thinking sounds something like: If I can keep my job, I can prove my worth. If I can lose the weight, I can prove my worth. If I can sustain this marriage, I can prove my worth.

What’s being left out are two things: 1) all of the mitigating circumstances and contributing factors that lead to the situation, and 2) the idea in the first place that one’s worth could be a topic of conversation for the day. 

What if the person facing job loss is in the wrong profession? What if the person with the weight issue doesn’t, in fact, have a weight issue, but a marital problem? What if the person who does not find themselves in close friendship is not in any way flawed, but has difficulty finding people to connect authentically with in a world that at many times can be so unauthentic?

In other words, there are alternative ways of looking at each of these scenarios. But the one thing that remains constant throughout is that a person’s worth, a person’s dignity should never fall into question. Because we all have inherent worth and dignity. 

This is a nonnegotiable. Part of the work of therapy is to get a rock-solid grip on that concept. And there are various tools for getting there. Time and again in life we will encounter relationships that end, we’ll be the recipient of mean things said or done, we’ll make mistakes—it’s part of being human. 

Life can be god damn messy at times, no doubt due in large part to miscommunications and misperceptions and randomness. But here is the takeaway for me and part of what I want to try to impart to others as I do this work.

There doesn’t need to be the fear that people will hit on that thing of all things that we guard so well against, because if people only knew, then they’d reject us in the same way that we reject ourselves. That thing, whatever it is and whatever it causes us to believe about ourselves, isn’t true.

So there’s no need to fear it. It’s an opinion, a false assumption.

Once that is realized instead, the above list can be replaced with:

-you might feel powerless at times but you can control what you can control
-you may have done “bad” things, but that doesn’t make you a bad person
-there are times in life where we miss the mark and fall short in some way and feel inadequate, but we can accept ourselves despite our shortcomings, as we are on the path towards self-improvement

If perfectionism is about meeting all conditions, and those conditions are tied to our self-worth, then we can let go of the need to be perfect because our self-worth is nonnegotiable and from that perspective, we already are perfect. Perfectly imperfect.

The Trap of Perfectionism

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by Monica Ross

What did a recently published September 2017 article in the Journal of Personality reveal?  Perfectionism leads to suicide.  Yet why are we so perfectionistic? 

We’re perfectionistic because we think that by telling ourselves constantly to work harder, to strive to be and do better, to excel as a mother, as a spouse, as a manager—that all of this will serve as MOTIVATION.  But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that it does not.

Dr. Kristin Neff at The University of Texas at Austin has done a lot of research on this topic, as well, and that is what her research concludes.  The self-criticism that we inflict on ourselves only serves to make us feel worse, it does not motivate us to change our behaviors.

The inner dialogue of someone with perfectionistic tendencies might look something like this: 

“I should have called my mother back this weekend, this is the second time she has tried to reach out to me to hear about the new position. I'm the worst daughter ever.”

or

“I never got time to go to the grocery store this weekend with the baby shower and all the catching up I had to do with work, so great that means another week of eating out.  I have to do better that.  It’s just not acceptable.”

or

”With all the meetings I have scheduled this week and the trainings I have to do there is just no way that I’ll be able to break for the gym at lunch and I’ll never lose that extra 20 pounds. I hate myself.  How did I let myself gain so much weight?”

The above inner dialogue is hard to read and absorb because it sounds so harsh and yet these are the types of things that we tell ourselves sometimes on a minute by minute basis.  We are often more harsh and cruel to ourselves than we would be to someone we dislike. 

Perhaps we feel that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.  And because of that, it’s okay to be harder on ourselves.

After all, wasn’t it I who got first place on the debate team?  Didn’t I graduate top 5% of my class? Wasn’t I selected to be chair or co chair of this or that committee in college?  Didn’t I accept the leadership role at work?

Here are three things that Dr. Neff points out that are essential elements to break through some of this thinking.

1.    Accept that we are human. 

And that being human is a shared common experience.  In other words, the person next to me in line at the checkout counter knows all too well what it means to be human and living in today’s world just as much I do.  We collectively as humans know what it means to experience joy and suffering, happiness and disappointment.  In that way, we are no different from each other.

We have a lot in common and therefore we have the ability to relate to one another.  If we can hold onto that concept then we can shift from a place of “look how much I’m suffering” to “look how much we all at times suffer in life.”

So it’s less about me not measuring up and therefore hating myself for it, but look at how we all set these unreasonable expectations and then beat ourselves and each other up for not meeting them.  It’s about moving from a place of shared judgement to a place of shared understanding about the human condition.  This makes it easier to connect instead of isolate.

2.    Strive to stay present and aware.

Another way to say this is to be mindful.  Part of being mindful is staying focused on the present moment and accepting whatever feelings, thoughts, or bodily sensations and physical reactions come up in the moment with acceptance. 

At the same time we are not our thoughts as Eckhart Tolle points out.  How can we be?  There is some part of us, call it the spiritual part if you want or the soul part of us that is an essence. It is untouched by what we might be feeling or thinking in the moment.  It is a strong, stable, solid, force.  It’s the place we tap into in order to feel a sense of groundedness.

3.    Be kind to yourself.

So, if we know all of this to be true, that we share a common humanity and as such are imperfect fallible human beings and that every moment brings new thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are at times difficult or even unpleasant to experience, then at the very least let’s be kind to ourselves and by extension kind to other people.

Click this link to set up an appointment to discuss how to decrease the perfectionistic tendencies in you life.