Why Ambitious Women Need Self-Compassion

As a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, I work with a lot of ambitious women. “Ambition” is a word that sometimes gets a bad rap, especially when it’s being applied to women, but I’m not talking about cold self-interest, or a myopic focus on wealth or recognition. I’m talking about people who are smart, motivated, and have big dreams for their personal and professional lives. Ambition requires grit, dedication, and resilience – qualities that we should should celebrate as essential to society as well as to our own mental health.

And so, I’m concerned about how often our culture conflates ambition with its evil twin, perfectionism.

Ambition and perfectionism have a lot of similarity on the surface – both require drive, motivation, and a strong desire for success. But where ambition is oriented towards continuous growth and striving for excellence, perfectionism is oriented towards avoiding mistakes and constant comparison. Perfectionism saps the joy out of our successes, and can paralyze us when we need to take risks to move forward. In a world where women regularly face harassment at work, and female leaders are still hitting their heads on the glass ceiling, perfectionism can feel like necessary armor. However, in addition to the fact that perfectionism increases our vulnerability to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses, it actually undermines our work performance and ability to lead teams.

Take it from two high achievers – Dr. Brene Brown and Oprah, for goodness sake – perfectionism doesn’t work.

Understanding Self-Compassion and its Relationship to Perfectionism

In my practice, I often introduce the concept of developing self-compassion as a highly effective tool for managing perfectionism and the self-criticism that often goes along with it. The idea is typically met with curiosity, skepticism, and even some discomfort. When we’ve learned to motivate our work and ourselves with the ideal of perfection, it can seem lazy or even self-sabotaging to think of adjusting our standards, as impossible as they may be.

What is self-compassion? Researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D., defines self-compassion as comprising three elements: Self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness involves treating ourselves with warmth and empathy when we are hurt or suffering. It’s the opposite of acting critically or judgmentally towards ourselves after a failure or a mistake. It’s always interesting to me when I see clients (or catch myself, for that matter) attempting to motivate themselves to do better with thoughts such as “I’m such an idiot” or “Mistakes are unacceptable.” Most of us would never consider attempting to motivate a friend or loved one in the same way, because we know it’s harmful, demoralizing, even abusive. We reassure our best friends and our partners that they’re still smart and capable, even after a setback, but we don’t apply that same logic to ourselves.

The second element of self-compassion, common humanity, involves recognizing that our mistakes and failures are a normal and inevitable part of being human. When we’re feeling inadequate in comparison to our colleagues and peers, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. And sometimes we really are cut off from a supportive community, such as in a workplace that is hostile or encourages cutthroat competition. The truth is that insecurities and flaws are universal, and when we lose sight of that, it’s typically because we’re comparing our own messy, imperfect insides to the illusions others are putting out into the world.

Finally, the third element of self-compassion is approaching our thoughts and feelings mindfully, without downplaying or exaggerating them. When we ignore or suppress our feelings, they bubble up stronger and in unhelpful ways, like procrastination and avoidance. On the other hand, we can feed into negative emotions, over-identifying with them so they become part of how we understand ourselves. This is the difference between grieving the failure of our business vs taking on that failure as a personal characteristic. The former is likely to be difficult process of growth and reflection, while the latter is more likely to dissuade us from taking professional risks again.

Ambition and Self-Compassion: A Great Combination

Although it’s often misunderstood as a call for self-indulgence or self-pity, self-compassion is not at all incompatible with ambition or the healthy striving for excellence. In fact, research suggests that self-compassionate people are more resilient to setbacks. For example, a series of studies by researchers at UC Berkeley found that after triggering a self-compassionate mindset, students were more motivated to improve their personal weaknesses and put more time into studying after a failure. In addition, self-compassion has been shown to help us think and problem solve more creatively. Bottom line: Self-compassion doesn’t just feel better than self-criticism, it also helps us get the job done.

If you find yourself engaging in perfectionistic judgment or self-criticism frequently, you’re not alone. Self-compassion is a skill that can be developed over time and with practice. Here’s a few simple ways to get started:

Pay attention to your inner critic. Often, my clients are so used to their self-critical inner monologue that they don’t even recognize when it’s happening. Pay attention to what that critical voice is saying and the way that she is saying it. Typically, our self-critic is trying to protect us from something negative. When we recognize that voice, we can recognize its positive intention while reframing those critical words to a more compassionate message. For example, when our self-critic says “You’re so lazy, you’ll never get anywhere in life,” we can respond with “I know it’s important that I get this project done and you’re worried about this deadline, but I need to take some time to relax before bed so that I can sleep tonight. I’ll come back to this tomorrow when I’m rested so I can do my best work.” (Importantly, we do come back! Remember, self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence.)

Consider how you’d treat a friend or loved one who is struggling. If you notice self-critical thoughts coming up, imagine a close friend in your situation. What might you say to comfort and encourage her? See what it is like to treat yourself with the same care and compassion.

Develop a meditation practice. Mindfulness is a core component of self-compassion, and has become extremely popular in recent years as an accessible, secular meditation practice with a wide variety of health benefits. Mindfulness will help you build emotional awareness so that you can better respond to painful emotions without suppressing or feeding into them. If the idea of meditating is intimidating, YouTube has a ton of short, introductory videos like this one that can help you get started.

Self-Compassion in Therapy

If you’re curious about exploring themes of ambition, perfectionism, and self-compassion in your own life, I’d love to work with you! I’m currently accepting new clients for weekday evenings in San Francisco, and Saturday morning in Oakland. I also offer online therapy sessions for your convenience. Call 510-368-4361 or email me at maya@californiatherapyonline.com to schedule an initial consultation, and mention this article to receive $40 off your first 4 sessions (a $160 total discount, offer good for clients scheduling their first appointment in July).

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