What’s the #1 thing you struggle with about perfectionism?
For some of my email subscribers, it’s their health.
These women suffer from anxiety, depression and chronic illness. Their bodies are drained by extreme expectations and doing too much.
My heart goes out to these women. I’ve had my fair share of health concerns linked to perfectionism.
When I consulted my doctor for chronic fatigue or mysterious body aches, he just sent me away with pain killers. Despite my frustration, I was determined to find a more durable, wholesome form of relief.
Though I’m not a doctor, I’ve unearthed some insight and tips that have done wonders for my health.
May these 3 mindfulness exercises to heal perfectionism bring you more ease, joy and well-being.
Embracing the pain
Have you heard of the mind-body connection?
Studies show that our thoughts, feelings and beliefs affect our physical body. And how we treat our body affects our mind. The mind and body are interrelated.
I remember a friend from college telling me that the stress from our massive school load gave her a chronic stomach ulcer. She’d crack jokes, but often rested to bounce back… and clown around some more!
But what if you don’t know the cause?
A few years ago, I experienced some baffling pain all along my left side, which made me limp a bit. Of course, I checked the usual self-care suspects:
- Did I strain myself? No.
- Did I get enough sleep? Yes. (I also had depression, which can cause sleep issues.)
- Did I eat enough healthy meals? Yes.
- Did I drink enough water? Yes.
- Did I get enough exercise? Yes.
Then, I discovered Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, which challenged my perception of pain: Is pain the same as suffering? To my great surprise, no.
When we simply observe the pain, we spare ourselves from the suffering that comes with judgment and resistance. The pain becomes a mere, albeit harsh sensation, instead of a mark of who we are.
Shining our awareness on aching body parts can thus improve the quality of life even for those in chronic pain. Our breath, the link between our mind and body, can be used to empower us, to feel like we’re enough, here and now.
It’s important to note, though, that mindfulness may not eliminate the pain, but changes your relationship to it, making it more bearable.
Body scan mindfulness exercise
My doctor never found the cause of my pain. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if perfectionism played a role.
Over time, pursuing impossible standards, worrying about what others think and beating yourself up lead to chronic stress and burnout.
And chronic stress from any source wears down your mind and body.
Not all stress is bad though—it can help you avoid danger, give a talk onstage or manage a conflict.
But after our fight-or-flight reaction, our bodies should naturally relax. If we experience “severe, frequent or prolonged stress”, it impairs our mental and physical health, according to Healthline.
Mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends doing this Body Scan exercise to manage stress and pain. Here are the essential steps:
- Lie on your back.
- Focus on your belly, rising and falling as you breathe.
- Concentrate on a body part, e.g. your left foot. Notice any sensations. Acknowledge any pain and accompanying thoughts and emotions, without judgment. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the body part.
- Proceed to your left ankle and repeat step 3.
- Do this exercise with each body part. If pressed for time, focus on the body part that especially needs more care.
Decoding your symptoms
For years, my mom would rush to the doctor’s at the slightest physical symptom.
Though this reflex calmed her worries, my mom eventually realized that Western medicine has its limits. The prescribed medicine would bring some short-term relief—but develop new symptoms, due to the secondary effects, which called for more medicine.
It felt like we were chasing symptoms in circles and getting nowhere.
That’s when we turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine, a holistic 3,500+ year-old system of health and wellness.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, specific emotions affect specific body parts. For example, anger can affect the liver and result in migraines.
Strange, isn’t it?
But it’s not so surprising, given that the liver manages the blood flow throughout the body. Chronic anger (or stress) can thus keep blood from flowing smoothly, which then triggers migraines.
Thankfully, my mom and I began to get a bigger understanding.
With the help of her acupuncturist and conventional doctor, my mom found the emotional root to some of her physical ailments. She felt less hopeless and more empowered to take responsibility for her emotions.
And eventually, my mom rejoiced in seeing some of her toughest symptoms vanish.
“Sometimes I think we would lose ourselves altogether if it were not for our stubborn, irrepressible symptoms, calling us, requiring us, to recollect ourselves, to reorient ourselves to life.” —Kat Duffy, The Alchemy of Illness
Meditation on emotional causes of physical symptoms
Please seek professional care if need be.
But if you’re curious—and you don’t have access to a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner—look up your symptoms in Lise Bourbeau’s book Your Body’s Telling You: Love Yourself! (non-affiliate link) or at this site (for an excerpt).
You can also use this site, which briefly explains the emotional causes of symptoms, according to Louise Hay.
For example, under “hip”, it says: “…. Fear of going forward in major decisions. Nothing to move forward to.”
Strangely enough, this description matches my experience at the time of that hip pain. The perfectionistic overachiever in me felt incapable of succeeding, and I had given up on exciting plans for the future.
My body seemed to signal to me that my mindset wasn’t helpful. And that it’d serve me to change gears.
That said, take the descriptions lightly. Approach them with an open mind. But know that some descriptions sound outright ridiculous.
If you have dry eyes and its description of “angry eyes, refusing to see with love” doesn’t resonate with you, move on.
Try this meditation on emotional causes of physical symptoms:
- Sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few moments.
- Look up your physical symptom, using Lise Bourbeau’s book Your Body’s Telling You: Love Yourself!, this excerpt or this site.
- Read the description for the physical symptom. Notice any thoughts, emotions and sensations.
- Contemplate these questions, while breathing deeply:
- Does the description match my experience? (You might have to search a bit, but don’t force yourself into the description either.)
- Do I feel any resistance? Am I judging myself?
- What if the description were true?
- Look up other physical symptoms, if applicable. Repeat steps 3 and 4.
After the meditation, you might want to journal about your experience. Let yourself express your feelings, so that you can process them and choose your next action steps.
Most importantly, please don’t blame yourself for your ailment. There are many factors like environmental or hereditary reasons that affect us.
The last thing we need is to judge ourselves.
Accepting your humanity
Perfectionism stems from the fear of being not good enough and of rejection.
It’s something that we’ve learned long ago, most likely in childhood, to feel safe and loved. As adults, we keep measuring our self-worth by productivity and achievements. Even the world seems to reinforce it.
That’s just the way it is…
It’s unfortunate that when you were little, you had your back against a wall. That you found it necessary to perfect yourself to feel worthy.
Did the world spin faster than you could handle, like it did for me?
Let today be an opportunity to see yourself in a new light. You’re capable of giving yourself the love you need. Of healing from past hurts.
Allow yourself to believe, even for only a few minutes, the possibility of being another way.
Instead of focusing on imperfections, consider mistakes as part of the beauty of your humanity.
Mistakes can be blessings in disguise. We learn how to succeed through failure.
Give yourself permission to be vulnerable.
“Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-compassion mindfulness exercise
Dr. Erica Hamilton encourages perfectionists to practice self-compassion.
Every time we choose to be kind to ourselves, instead of berating ourselves, we build up the skill of self-compassion. The key is to consciously practice making this choice everyday. I have a coaching program where I teach you how.
It’s especially hard to do when we’re ill.
When we’re sick, we feel great pressure to get well as soon as possible, from ourselves and others. Since we can’t take care of loved ones and need help from others, we might feel diminished.
Suddenly, our identity takes a hit.
As Kat Duff describes in The Alchemy of Illness, illness takes away the things we believe make us who we are: our roles as a mother, daughter or partner, our daily tasks and our ability to get things done.
But the person who’s left, underneath her roles, is who we really are.
We can welcome the stillness that illness brings, to get to know our most vulnerable self. To gently practice acceptance of what is.
And to embrace the unknown.
Here’s a self-compassion mindfulness exercise:
- Get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few moments.
- Inhale, while saying in your mind, I’m struggling… Exhale, while saying in your mind, That’s okay. Repeat several times.
- Inhale, while saying in your mind, Failure / illness / hard times, blessing(s) in disguise. Exhale, I’m more than my failure / illness / these hard times. Repeat several times.
- Inhale, May I be kind to myself. Exhale, May I accept what is. Repeat several times.
Feel free to create variants of the above phrases!
We live in a society that overprizes productivity
Perhaps we’ve always measured our worth by achievements, success and hard work, without even realizing it.
It’s not easy to break out of this paradigm.
Yet we can work hard and make room for rest. We can succeed and embrace failure.
We can choose to see we’re worthy, simply because we’re alive.
Otherwise, our bodies will remind us of our vulnerability and teach us how to live gently with ourselves.
In any case, it’s an invitation to practice self-compassion.
Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading to heal perfectionism: