This week on the podcast, I’m talking about perfectionism. Because as honorable as it is to care about being a better person and to give a shit about bringing your best and making a difference, we can go overboard with it all. And we can feel like crap if we’re not doing our best at all times. Which let’s face it, just isn’t possible. This week, I hope to help us all see how inner critic might be driving our desire to be better. And to embrace all the many glorious ways we’re imperfect.
Today I’m talking to someone who can help us do just that. Clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Cousineau. Tara is author of The Kindness Cure. She is the creator of the course: overcome perfectionism through self-compassion for the meditation app insight timer. And she is a faculty member at the Harvard medical school’s center for mindfulness and compassion.
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Tara, welcome! Let’s dive right in. You say that perfectionism doesn’t start out as a problem. It starts out as a solution that then creates problems of its own. So what are we trying to solve with perfectionism?
Well, the way I see perfectionism is that it’s really a person’s way to deal with an underlying fear or anxiety about rejection or acceptance, whichever way you want to look at it. And so perfectionism becomes really a habit of mine. I call it an inner algorithm of if I just do better, work harder, work longer and get this just right I won’t have any problems and I’ll be accepted in the world. And of course over time, you can see how that would be very exhausting.
Yeah. If only it were that easy. So you also talk a lot about the inner critic and can you tell us what that is and how it relates to perfectionism?
We all have inner critics. A few of them roaming around in our minds at any one time. And our inner critic is really an internal story that we tell ourselves. And at one point this inner narrative served us. You know, keep studying, get those A’s, keep working harder, keep earning money because that will solve so many problems in life. And so we just sort of accustomed to it.
Or we might’ve had some conditioning really in our upbringing that said, you better get this right. Or don’t make a mistake. And if you don’t get it right, then no one’s going to want to be your friend or something like that. I mean, we get these messages from our families, from our friends, the middle-school hallways, social media. And they get reinforced over and over again. So if you can personify the inner critic, it actually makes it easier to learn how to have a relationship with that part of you, as opposed to thinking that’s who you are or that you’re never going to be good enough.
So is the inner critic then like kind of in the driver’s seat when it comes to perfectionism? Is that where this drive to be our best is coming from?
Yeah. So you can see the inner critical voice as really an inner manager in a way it’s trying to solve problem and manage a situation. Or it could be an inner protector, right? Protecting you from not making a mistake, let’s say. And so if you can see perfectionism really more as this aspect of you, rather than a problem necessarily, then you can start to work with it in different ways. And you can start to see it as really just a misguided attempt for love and belonging.
So I like that because that means we don’t have to squash this perfectionist tendency. Right? We can sort of learn to work with it and actually maybe even turn toward it? Can you talk about that a little bit more.
Yeah. That’s really what I teach. I work actually with a ton of young people in their twenties and thirties and striving is a really big part of their life. And one of the things that I have found works really well is when they can befriend that inner critic. To really notice, why are you here? How are you trying to help me? What are you trying to motivate me to do?
If they can start to see this part of them is trying to serve them in some way. And that they’re working really hard on their behalf. The entity of you can say, oh, I get why you’re doing this, but don’t work so hard. There’s other ways to do this. Getting a good night’s sleep. Making sure that you take time out to meet with friends. Exercise. Do all these other things that are going to be as beneficial, if not more beneficial. So we really need to befriend that part of ourself. Otherwise you’re going to burn out.
Now as part of this making friends process, you counsel people to name their inner critic. How does that help? How do you do it and how does it help?
Well, you know that movie inside out where they had the characters of the moods? Joy, disgust, anger, fear, that sort of thing. It helps to kind of personify this aspect. Because when we can characterize it, then we can actually talk to it. We can start to have a relationship with it.
So I have one example of a young woman and she was in a very prestigious design program, like architectural design program. So she would sit at her desk and say, how am I going to get started? And the project seems so enormous and big. And she knew that she was going to have to really show it in front of a whole bunch of experts and people. So it was a really scary kind of situation. So what she would tend to do is make sure that her desk was clean. The sticky notes were pushed away, that the house felt clean, that she had this sort of clean slate.
And of course what happened is that she spent hours tidying up and organizing. Some people might call this procrastination, but it really was her solution. And so when we came to this exercise, she was in one of my workshops. And the invitation was, well, if you could find a character out there in the world, or just describe this part of you, who might you come up with? So every morning we went around the room and they started kind of figuring out, what their inner critic was like or who they reminded them of.
And she came back and she said, I figured it out. I’m going to call this part of me, my inner Monica after the character on Friends who always had to have the coffee cup in the right place. And so what this allowed her to do was to see that whenever her inner Monica would show up, that she could turn towards that aspect of herself and say, I know this is really challenging. This is hard. And it’s normal to feel nervous. But the best thing is to just get started. Son’t worry about the sticky notes or the clean house. J get started. It’s going to be okay.
So she was able to kind of see her inner Monica whenever it popped up for her as, oh, right. This is a signal that says, you know what, I’m nervous or I’m scared. And instead of going into procrastination, which is just going to prolong the the anxiety, she could just face it head on in a kind and loving way. And even with a sense of humor.
Yeah. I do think the sense of humor has got to help so much in those moments because it is kind of like a deer in headlights moment, right?
Yeah. Sometimes I say the inner critic is just like a heart palpitation. Once you notice it just breathe. It’s just a sign for you to pay attention.
I love it. So how do you counsel people to go about the process of naming their inner critic?
Well, it’s pretty easy actually. I invite them to reflect on a situation in the recent past that was really stressful and where they felt like this inner voice was beating them up. It’s just to kind of describe like a scene in a movie or the characters. And what was said, what was felt, and write it out. Just a short paragraph, a couple of sentences. And then to take that situation and just really ask like, oh, what’s this character trying to do? Is it trying to help me? Is it trying to warn me? Or is it trying to protect me in some way?
And when you can kind of identify that underlying motivation or protective mechanism, you start to extract yourself and say, oh, wow, no wonder. So you’re really starting to develop a sense of empathy for yourself by stepping outside of the situation.
And then it’s like, okay, can you come up with a name? And it doesn’t have to be a movie character. I mean, the Monica was just, you know, one example. But people have come up with really interesting names. One student came up with mooch, because that part of her was robbing her of joy in her life. And so when her inner mooch would show up, she would recognize, oh right, I do need to take a break. It’s okay. It’s okay to have fun.
And so then we can start to see this as really a signal. A signal to pay attention to in a mindful way and in a compassionate way.
Nice. And what’s possible when we make friends with our inner critic, you know? We can kind of see it as a character. We know that it’s got the best intentions for us, then what happens?
Well, you know what? Life becomes a little bit easier. You feel less stressful. You start to catch the triggers earlier. And you might even be able to predict things. Like, for example, my mother’s in her eighties now. And every time I take the four hour drive to see her, my inner team shows up, It gets kind of anxious. Like, am I going to get criticized? Is she going to say something about my hair or my weight? I mean, it’s really my inner team.
And so I really soften my inner team on their way down. And I’ll just say, alright team Tara, it’s okay. She’s just trying to connect with you, she’s trying to help you out in some way. She’s got good intentions, let it go. And it’s actually a really good self coaching. And then I can enjoy my time with my mom and not get easily triggered. After all these years, she’s not going to change. The only thing that can change is my response. And so that’s how identifying your inner critic can really help. It helps you change your response to triggering things.
I love hearing that someone who’s done so much study and so much work helping others with their inner critics, that you still have to have these kinds of moments too.
So here’s the thing. I think one of the things I try to really teach people is I like to take a compassionate approach from an evolutionary or sort of bio-psycho-social perspective on how our nervous systems developed. And they still remain unchanged. Like we can’t help it that we’re designed ultimately to survive. So our minds are continually trying to solve this ancient problem of safety and belonging. But in harsh conditions and in small groups, That’s our blueprint.
So our brains aren’t really designed for our modern day rating and ranking culture. And these large social networks and these unrealistic ideals that we have for ourselves. So things like perfectionism, imposter phenomenon, social anxiety, it’s really an understandable response by our nervous system, right? It’s not your fault.
So we’re going to have these moments throughout our lives because our brain is continually. It’s sort of ascertaining whether is this safe? Do I belong? Am I going to get kicked out of the tribe? So I think helping people notice and befriend their nervous system, which is just what underlies the inner critical voices, you know, helps them to reframe things more as a life challenge. And just really to kind of give yourself a little bit of a break.
Amen. So for people who’d like to learn more about their inner critic and learn how to overcome it, what have you got for them and where can they find it?
ell definitely my book, which you mentioned, The Kindness Cure has lots of tips. And I will actually be doing a podcast starting in November as well called The Kind Minds Podcast. And every week I’m going to have little tips on how to kind of address really sort of naming our emotions, getting perspective.All of these things to support sort of the inner critical mind that are just part of who we are. We can’t help it.
So there’s that. And my overcome perfectionism course will also be on my website with more things. A workbook or finding the inner critic ebook. So you can just go to kindminds.co, it’s my little kindness company. And check out the well being things on that.
Okay. Great. Well, I’ll include a link to that in the show notes. You’re also working on a pretty fun quiz, right?
Yes, I am. The quiz is really a perfectionism quiz. It’s helping you identify your meet and greet your inner critic. And you can find that actually on my website as well. So I’ll be launching that soon. And really, you know, the invitation is to kind of notice sort of your little quirks, your inner algorithms, and then really see that part of yourself as like a younger part. As an inner bully or an inner judge. As an inner joy theif or a sleuth, like always trying to find a problems,
And when we can kind of see that, oh, the inner critical voice was just something that developed when we were younger and it’s still hanging out, can we befriend it? So yeah, come and take the quiz. I’ll be curious what people get as results.
Daily Tiny Assignment
Write down some of the things that you notice your inner critic telling you. Now, I know that it’s telling you something. Maybe you haven’t paid attention to it yet. Or maybe you’ve just been hearing it so long that you don’t even really need to listen. But I’m promise you it’s there. And I promise you that it’s pretty a interesting exercise to really see objectively what kinds of thoughts you’re pummeling yourself with.
I did this one time. I wrote down all the thoughts of my inner critic was telling me, and then I ended up drawing a picture of who this voice was. And it was this woman who had cat eye glasses. She looked like somebody from the far side cartoons. And so I ended up naming her Gary, because Gary Larson drew the far side cartoons.
So once you write down the things that your inner critic is telling you, look at it objectively and think if this were a character in a story, what would their name be? Could be like Monica from Friends, for example. It could be some, a character that already exists, or it could be one that you just want to make up. It’s a really powerful way to start to get some perspective on what your inner critic, AKA a big source of our perfectionist tendencies is telling you.
And if you can start to see it as a character, that’s not yourself, you’ll have some objectivity on it. And there’ll be a little bit more space for you to begin to question like, is this something that I even want to listen to? I hope you’ll come back tomorrow when I’m sharing a mantra that helps me when I noticed my inner critic and my inner perfectionist, starting to chime in. Talk to you then!