[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success. I'm your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study, and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind and what makes peak performers tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we discuss why the happiness movement has done us a disservice and sometimes actually makes things worse. How perfectionism creates an illusion of control and distorts your reality, how to become aware of the critical inner voice at the root of your pain and unhealthy habits, and the incredible power of self-compassion and much more, with Megan Bruneau. The science of success continues to grow with more than 640,000 downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries, hitting them with new noteworthy and more.
A lot of our listeners are curious about how to organize and remember all this information. I get tons of listener emails and comments saying, “Matt, you read so many books, you do so much research, how do you keep track of all this stuff?” We put together an incredible guide for anybody that’s listening, you can get it for totally for free that will help you organize and remember all of this incredible information. This is how I keep track of everything, it’s the personal system that I use and get it totally for free.
All you have to do is text the word “smarter” to the number 44222. Again, it’s a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. I get emails all the time, listeners telling me how much they love this guide and how awesome it is. You can get it, all you have to do is text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or you can go to scienceofsuccess.co, put in your email and we’ll send you the free guide today.
In our previous episode, we discussed lessons from 25 years of studying the evolution of human emotion, examined whether the Machiavellian concept of power still works, explored the surprising scientific data on how you can acquire power, and looked closely the foundations of enduring power from studies of military units on how to achieve and maintain power with Dr. Dacker Keltner. If you want to understand deeply how to acquire power and what makes you lose it, listen to that episode.
[0:02:35.1] MB: Today we have another exciting guest on the show, Megan Bruneau. Megan is a psychotherapist, wellness coach, writer, podcast host and the creator of oneshrinksperspective.com. After years of perfectionism fueled depression anxiety, eating disorders and more, she discovered how to like herself, take risks and find success without beating herself up to get there.
Megan, welcome to the science of success.
[0:02:58.8] MB1: Thanks so much for having me Matt. I’m stoked to be here.
[0:03:01.2] MB: Well we’re very excited to have you on. So, for listeners who may not be familiar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[0:03:06.9] MB1: Sure. Oh gosh, what do you want to know? Like you said, I’m a psychotherapist, I’m a wellness coach, a writer, podcast host, all of that and I have a real interest in helping people change the relationships to themselves so that they’re able to take the risks that they want and follow their dreams and that kind of thing. I have a background in personal training, nutrition, yoga, so I take like a really holistic approach to mental health but I’m not like anti-medication or anything like that.
Yeah, I also have a real vested interest in helping people realize the utility in their emotions because I think we have the slight super pathologizing culture that we live in that tells people they shouldn’t feel sad or anxious or any of those sorts of things, and the happiness movement has really done us a disservice. My main purpose is for being out there or to help people learn how to like themselves more and make space for their difficult feelings and experiences.
[0:03:57.2] MB: So when you say “the happiness movement has done us a disservice”, tell me about that?
[0:04:01.3] MB1: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot in positive psychology and like the happiness industry that I think is very helpful for people, particularly a focus on self-growth and looking inward and things like that. However, there’s a lot around like positive thinking and choosing happy and you see a lot of this stuff out there on Instagram and hear people saying like, “Happiness is a choice.”
What that does is it actually makes people feel worse, especially if you’re dealing with depression or going through a rough time and even like the idea of gratitude while gratitude is a super effective intervention if used effectively. If you just kind of like are using it to invalidate what you’re going through and you’re like, “Oh, there’s children starving in Africa or this are first world problems, you don’t have any reasons to be upset.” What it does is it creates what we call secondary emotions.
We have primary emotions and we have secondary emotions and our primary emotions are basically the feelings that we feel that are super evolutionary. Like, they’re there for a reason. You feel loneliness because it will make you connect, you feel anxiety because it’s telling you to prepare for something or be vigilant or be on the lookout because you may be in danger. Sometimes we feel depression because we’re not living the life that we want to live and depression is telling us, we need to sort our shit out.
Really like every emotion has utility in it and a lot of this emotions are very uncomfortable and they’re meant to be that way because that’s motivating. We’re far more motivated to take action when we feel uncomfortable in order to alleviate that discomfort. This idea that we need to only feel comfortable emotions, such as like happiness and excitement and calm, what happens is when we start feeling this uncomfortable emotions which I thought is like primary evolutionary emotions, we then judge ourselves for feeling them.
So we’re like, “Oh my gosh, you're so weak or you’re pathetic or you’re being ingrate or you’re doing it wrong like you just can’t be happy like everyone else,” and then we create this layer of what as I said were called secondary emotions which come out of self-judgment and that might be shame or anxiety or anger for feeling sadness or shame or guilt or depression or whatever. So basically like, what this happiness movement has done is it’s created, in some cases for some a lot of people, another layer of emotions and another layer of suffering that comes out of judging ourselves for feeling anything that’s not happiness. Does that make sense?
[0:06:21.9] MB: That definitely make sense. I’m curious, tell me or dive a little bit more into the idea of self-judgment?
[0:06:27.9] MB1: Yeah, so I mean we all have our inner dialogue going on that really evaluates the stimuli in our lives. So like external stuff and the world that our day to day and everything and like moment to moment, but we have this real inner voice and this is not like, “Oh, you’re hearing voices in your head.” It’s just like, if you start to pay attention to it you’ll notice you have thoughts and that’s like an interpretation of your experience and we tend to internalize.
Usually we internalize the voices of our caregivers or for some people if they’re really bullied in high school or had like a really critical sibling. But usually we — the way that we relate to ourselves is kind of a compilation of how the people around us have related to us growing up. So for some of us we’re like really hyper judgmental around anything that we do and we’re super self-critical and this kind of gets into perfection, which I imagine we’ll talk about it at some point.
We judge ourselves for anything that we perceive to be not meeting our expectations and I think when we think about expectations we oftentimes think of performance, but we have expectations for ourselves around our mood as well. Our thoughts that we have. Just our day to day that doesn’t necessarily always involve performance. We judge ourselves for how we feel. So that’s sort of self-judgment in the context of judging ourselves for having a certain emotional experience or a certain thought. But we just tend to be like, I mean, I imagine many people listening to this can relate to being hyper self-critical and self-judgmental or have inward judgment.
[0:08:10.5] MB: I think you made a really important point and something that kind of gets lost a lot of the time, which is that it’s easy to think about sort of anxiety or performance anxiety especially in the context of sort of performing or achieving a result. But the under current there is that we also have expectations about what our mood should be and if that doesn’t happen then we can get into this sort of cycles of self-judgment and waves of secondary emotions.
[0:08:37.2] MB1: Totally, and that’s really performance anxiety, you know? It takes us out of being able to perform and just be in the moment and be in the flow of what we’re doing best because we’re so hyper focused on the experience we’re having and that’s the same thing with social anxiety too, or really any form of anxiety. But it’s like, you know, you go into a setting and let’s say you’re feeling a bit anxious because you don’t know anybody there and you know, you’re maybe feeling a bit self-conscious and that’s normal.
Human beings want to be accepted, we want to be liked. That’s very primal of us, because if you weren’t accepted in caveman days like you’re probably going to die, right? It’s really natural to have that desire to be accepted and to not be rejected and to feel self-conscious and kind of wonder like, “Oh, I want to make sure that I’m socially acting in a way that will be received well as opposed to being rejected or isolated.” But often times with social anxiety, what happens is then we’re aware of that anxiety and we’re like, “Oh my god, you’re feeling anxious, stop it. You have to go into this, you’re going to rock it, you own it. You’re super confident and you don’t feel confident and people can see that and your failure and everyone can tell what you’re thinking.”
And we start to really spiral with some of this thoughts that are really focused around how we believe we should be presenting ourselves emotionally as well as outwardly. So when we can give ourselves permission to feel feelings and some of them being uncomfortable ones while still having an experience, while still going up there and giving the presentation, while still going to the party and talking or going on a date or going on a podcast or whatever, then it’s much less painful and distressful because we’re like, “Yeah, that’s cool, I’m making space for some of those feelings. Those are just there to help me.”
[0:10:21.9] MB: So if you get caught in kind of a spiral of thoughts like that, what are some things you can do to break out of it?
[0:10:28.3] MB1: I mean, I think it’s sort of a spectrum because if we get so caught that we’re feeling like we’re on the verge of a panic attack. In that case, it might be helpful to remove yourself from the situation and kind of reset, right? I mean if you’re feeling like you’re having real physical symptoms and anxiety and, you know, you’re like sweating like crazy and you just can’t — because what happens with anxiety is it’s like the fight or flight response, right? So our body prepares for fight or flight and so what that looks like physiologically is like core starts pumping through our system and all of our blood kind of drains out of our prefrontal cortex, which is where logic and decision making happens and it goes into our large muscle groups, getting prepared to fight or flee.
Our pupils dilate and our digestion shuts off and we’re getting prepared because we feel stress, right? If you feel like you're at a point where physiologically you’re beyond the point of being able to kind of practice mindfulness, which is what I imagine we’ll get into as well. Then I would say like, remove yourself from the situation if possible and like give yourself permission to kind of reset. You know? Do something and this is — maybe it will be helpful to work with an example. What comes to mind for you now, when you think about feeling like you would be spiraling and just be like super overwhelmed with those thoughts and feelings?
[0:11:41.2] MB: Yeah, one thing that sometimes creates anxiety for me is like — I have mild claustrophobia, so being on a plane sometimes, I get very anxious.
[0:11:52.3] MB1: Yeah, okay. So this is an interesting one because, I mean, we have to also be realistic with our options, right? You’re not going to open the emergency exit and jump out of the plane, that’s just not an option. Maybe it is, I like to think that it’s not because I hope that you can’t open those things like a random bystander can’t if they get really anxious. So we also have to look, “Okay, what’s realistic?” Right? You’re feeling really claustrophobic on the plane and actually, I mean, that might be a place to practice more of the mindfulness that I’ll get into.
It also might be like, “Okay, what can I do in this situation to help me feel more comfortable? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I listen to some music? Can I focus on my breath? Is there something that I can do that can help me just stop the kind of spiraling thoughts and feelings?” But however, being realistic they like, you are on that plane and from the moment it takes off until the moment it lands, you can’t get off.
So that’s an interesting example because often times like we can remove ourselves from a situation and sometimes, like I’m a big proponent of “do what serves you better”. So in some cases like in a person’s healing or recovery or introspection or self-growth period of their life, you might need to take yourself — like let’s say you’re trying to get used to riding the subway, right? It’s something that causes you a lot of anxiety so for someone like yourself with claustrophobia, maybe that’s a challenge at times. Like you’re riding during rush hour, that’s going to be super stressful.
Through mindfulness and getting to know your limits and stuff, there might be times where you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to ride two stops and then I’m getting off because that’s just like too distressful for me and I’m not trying to make myself suffer more than I need to. However I’m trying to — I’m growing my emotional muscles,” you know what I mean? It’s kind of like going to the gym, we want to build tolerance or this difficult emotions that if we don’t pay attention to them, we end up becoming slaves to them.
So if every time you go on the subway you felt anxiety and you listened to that anxiety and did exactly what it told you, and you’re like, “I’m like I’m getting off.” You’re never going to be able to ride the subway. I realized of kind of like taking your plane example to the subway but I just feel like that might be an easier one to sort of show the different options, is that cool?
[0:13:58.9] MB: Yeah, that’s totally fine.
[0:14:01.3] MB1: Okay cool. So, if every time you get on the subway, you get off the moment you feel anxiety, it’s like that’s cool. Maybe that’s what you need? But it’s also not going to necessarily help you develop comfort with a discomfort anxiety gives you, you know what I mean? So, you want to be able to kind of find this balance where you’re like okay, some days you might feel empowered to ride the subway two to three stops and eventually you’re riding at like five, 10, 15 and eventually riding it for hours and that’s awesome. But other days you know, it might be too distressful for you and you can get off.
There’s like this kind of balance between being like, “Okay, I’m feeling a difficult emotion right now,” and in your case of being on the plane, it’s like this claustrophobia but ultimately that’s anxiety. “Here are my options, I want to alleviate — I want to cope with that anxiety. My options are, I can either remove myself from the situation that’s causing me anxiety or causing me this difficult emotion or I can kind of put up my umbrella and like the storm of this emotion and still be in the storm but comfort myself enough that I can cope with it.” That’s where like self-compassion comes in and that’s where connection comes in and that’s where self-soothing comes in.
So the first step would be, “Okay, what choice do I want to make here? Do I want to choose to fully remove myself from the situation that’s causing me this emotion so I can just like alleviate the emotion entirely? Or do I have enough resilience and resources in this moment to stick it out and it’s not going to be like so distressful that I’m going to feel traumatized essentially? If that’s the case, if I want to make the choice to stay then what do I need?” So In your case of the plane example, like you don’t really have a choice, you are on that plane and you're just going to have to put up your umbrella and hope that you have an umbrella and what does that look like?
Is that music? Is that the person next to you? It’s that focusing on your breath? Is that going to the bathroom? What’s your kind of way of coping with that? But then the example of like the subway, you have to make that decision, “Okay, am I going to get off and not feel that anxiety because I’m off and that’s very relieving but I also know that that’s not going to help me on my path toward building my emotional tolerance muscles? Or am I going to pay attention to that anxiety that I’m feeling and make some space for it and remind myself that it’s going to pass, it’s not permanent and remind myself that it’s not going to kill me and focus on my breath and put on that music or again talk to the person next to me or again, count to 10 or whatever you’re in practice self-compassion, all of that sort of stuff?”
I guess like coming back to your original question of what are the tools that a person can enact when they’re feeling like they’re spiraling, and they’re aware of that? The first step is obviously like this mindfulness of becoming aware of what you're experiencing and noticing like, “Okay, what is happening for me right now? Okay, I notice I’m spiraling.” Then being like, “Am I in this place of spiraling where I need to just shut it off and get the fuck out of here? Or can I sit with the spiraling to a certain extent and pay attention to it and ask myself what I need so that I don’t necessarily need to remove myself from the party or stop the presentation or leave the date or turn off the podcast mic,” or whatever. Does that make sense?
[0:17:11.0] MB: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense and the two things that I found super helpful in a situation like that where, you know, there was no way you can kind of leave is one kind of just really trying to practice kind of acceptance and accepting all the emotions and feelings that you’re having and the other one is something I know you’ve talked about, which is sort of the idea of impermanence and the sense that everything is temporary, all anxiety eventually subsides and so just sort of riding it out and accepting it as it is so that you can kind of eventually sort of move through it.
[0:17:44.8] MB1: Totally, I mean, we live in a world where we’re sold this message that everything is permanent and we need to reach this permanent state of whatever or of happiness or success and like that’s just not reality. That sells a lot of things because people think if they buy something and then they’re going to be happy or if they get married or if they buy the house or if they get the promotion or whatever and that’s just now how life works. I mean, life is like a series of experiences woven together and ultimately what it all comes back to is like the sensations that we feel.
Those are a result of our interpretations and our emotional experiences and when we can make peace with the fact that nothing is permanent, everything is impermanent, everything is constantly changing, it makes it — it’s actually, I mean, it’s painful on some levels because it’s like, “Oh, that’s too bad. I really wanted to just like grab happiness and hold onto it for the rest of my life.” But it’s also very liberating because we’re like, “Wow, any of this painful experiences that I make currently be going through or that I’m afraid of going through, those are going to pass as well.” It’s kind of the like “this too shall pass”.
In those moments, when we’re going through that storm of whatever the emotional experience is, we have things that we can do that can make it worse such as judging ourselves or pushing the emotion down or telling ourselves that we’re pathetic or whatever or telling ourselves it’s going to last forever and that’s like — there’s a Buddhist saying that like “pain times struggle equals suffering” and that’s when we create suffering. Life has pain in it, that’s just like what life is. It’s filled with grief and disappointment and loss and sadness and things not going the way that you want them to and like inevitably there are going to be painful emotions alongside all of the beautiful, wonderful really comfortable ones. When we judge ourselves for feeling those, we create additional suffering. So that’s kind of like the whole “pain times struggle equals suffering” thing.
So if you think about you’re going out there into the emotional storm that you can’t avoid, you make things a lot worse by practicing self-judgment and all the things I mentioned and that’s kind of like being like, “Oh, I think I’m just going to like, I don’t’ know, take off all my clothes and like, I don’t know, roll around in the snow or something like that.” Like that probably would make the storm worse. However, there are certain things that you can do again such as like putting up that umbrella or putting on a jacket and mixing together a snowstorm and rain storm, whatever storm works for you; come up with your own metaphor. But basically through practicing self-compassion which is making space for the difficult feeling through mindfulness.
Reminding ourselves of like we’re human and, you know, emotions are a natural part of our experience and it doesn’t mean that we’re broken, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us and many other people, millions of other people are feeling a very similar emotion or the same emotion at this time and that’s kind of what unites all of us and then also practicing self-kindness, which is essentially like saying to yourself what you would to a friend and one that is I advise clients to use and I use it with myself is starting your dialogue with yourself in a moment of distress with, “It’s understandable your feeling ____ because ____”.
Something like, “Hey, it’s understandable that you’re feeling anxious right now. Because you want to perform well in this presentation, or like you want to give a good impression on this date or you know, you want to do well on this test or you want to do well in this interview or wherever the anxiety is coming from like it’s coming from a good place, it’s there to help you,” right? So just taking away that layer of judgment that comes from stoop feeling anxious you’re being so weak and actually being like, “Hey, it’s understandable you’re feeling anxious right now.” Validating your experience.
So that’s kind of like one of the ways that we can make space for that emotion and be able to kind of like ride it out, but then also as you said, relying on this piece of impermanence it’s like, “I’m going to practice this self-compassion with the knowledge that the emotion will pass,” that’s a central positive self-compassion. Just makes it far less distressful and anxiety provoking to have a difficult emotional experience when we have all of this in mind.
[0:21:45.7] MB: So tell me a little bit more about kind of self-kindness and self-compassion and you mentioned something about the way you would treat a friend.
[0:21:53.0] MB1: Totally. So, self-compassion like the real guru’s, there are Paul Gilbert and Kristin Neff and like they’re amazing. Paul Gilbert has a book called The Compassionate Mind and Kristin Neff has one that’s just called Self-Compassion: Changing the way you relate to yourself, or something like that. They’re both like amazing, amazing resources for anyone who is interested in this further but basically what self-compassion is, it’s a few things, it’s sort of like the — first it’s kind of like the response to the self-esteem movement of the 90’s that really screwed a lot of us up.
So basically what movement did, it was like, “Everyone gets a gold star, everyone, you’re the best. You're perfect.” And in reality, that’s not statistically possible because statistically we’re all average you know what I mean? Some of us are better singers than others, some of us are better tennis players than others. But at the end of the day, we’re all ultimately average and there’s no sort of like — no one’s more worthy than anyone else and for some people, that can be really terrifying especially for people who struggle with perfectionism, where their self-worth is very dependent on believing that they’re better than other people.
So what self-compassion is it’s sort of a response, we finally learn, “Oh my god, telling people that they’re perfect doesn’t work.” Because what it does, like when you tell your child that they’re perfect, they’re the best, they actually then, their self-esteem or their self-worth gets very tied to always believing they’re the best. Then they get on the real world where they realize they’re not the best and they’re like, “Oh my god, who am I? I’m worthless, I’m nothing, so long as I’m not the best,” you know?
Self-compassion is the answer to that. Self-compassion is like, “Hey, we’re all imperfect, you’re imperfect, I’m imperfect and that’s okay. We’re all kind of like fumbling along through life together and nobody really knows what the fuck they’re doing but like we’re trying and that’s cool, you’re allowed to be imperfect and that doesn’t make you not worthy or not lovable or not desirable or any of those sort of things.”
So that’s kind of like the underlying like, because a lot of people when they hear self-compassion or “self-love”, if you want to call it that, they think of it as being like, “I’m going to look in the mirror, I’m going to tell myself I’m the best,” and it’s like, no, it’s about sometimes looking in the mirror and being like, “You’re having a really rough day, that’s okay. Yeah, maybe you're not super on your game and that’s okay too.” There’s still like a desire for growth and learning and getting to know yourself better and being a better human. But the three, if you want to break self-compassion down, the three main kind of like action items that come out of it are mindfulness, self-kindness, and this idea of like common humanity. So, I’ll speak about each of those.
Mindfulness, you probably heard of mindfulness before. Mindfulness is like a real buzz word this days and in some cases I think it’s being misinterpreted because there’s just such a focus on “just be in the present”. That is a big part of mindfulness but what often gets lost is like the central components of mindfulness are non-judgment and acceptance and just kind of like curiosity and observation of that current moment. So it’s not just about being present, it’s being present without judgment and with acceptance and that’s like, we can practice mindfulness toward the anxiety that we feel, the thought that we’re having, the bodily sensations that we’re experiencing or the pain that we’re feeling. What we perceive of around is like our current interpretation of the weather. We can practice mindfulness to kind of anything that like taps into any of our senses.
Mindfulness is like the first place that self-compassion starts because mindfulness is essentially like being aware without judgement, with compassion, with acceptance and just really noticing what is happening with this sort of more like, almost as if you’re watching a movie, you’re not over identifying with it. So when you think about how we react to life, basically what happens is there’s a stimuli like there’s something that happens, some sort of situation and then we have this interpretation of what that is and often times that’s where the self-judgment comes in. Then we react. Often times we forget that there’s like the interpretation piece in the middle like we just have a situation and then we react. Something happens and we freak out.
We don’t realize, well actually, there’s like this space in there that through practicing mindfulness and getting to know a little bit more about what that is and bringing more of it into your life. You actually get a lot more control over how you react to the world around you actually really empowers you to not necessarily have this unhealthy or unswerving reactions through emotions. Mindfulness is basically being like, “Okay, I notices I’m feeling something or I notice like a situation just happened and let me sit with that and just kind of like spend a moment acknowledging what’s going to be the best reaction here?” And then choosing how I want to react. It’s like something that’s where a lot of meditation is very helpful and yoga and focusing on your breath and just starting to really notice your thoughts without necessarily judging them or reacting or noticing your feelings. Because then that empowers you to actually make a decision, it’s more deserving for you.
So basically, mindfulness is this idea of, as I said, being aware and so you start to become aware of let’s say like this critical inner voice that is ultimately at the root of a lot of your pain or a lot of your unhealthy habits. So that’s like the first step there, you’ve got the mindfulness, you’re paying attention. Then, there’s this self-kindness piece, which is like, “What would I say to a friend in this situation? Am I going to tell a friend that they’re like a huge screw up and they’re never going to amount to anything and no one’s ever going to love them and they’re pathetic? Or would I tell a friend like my god, you’re so fat and ugly and no one’s going to love you and my god, I can’t believe you have cellulite, like you're a failure at life? Am I going to tell a friend the same things that I’m telling myself right now?” Probably not, right?
Because most of us are former compassionate and understandable and flexible with other people than we are with ourselves. So there’s a mindfulness piece of recognizing like what’s going on, “How am I reacting to myself right now? What am I experiencing?” Then there’s the self-kindness piece and that’s where like the example I used of “this is understandable because ___” can be really helpful. Then this common humanity piece, which is like, “Hey, I’m not alone in this. We’re all in this together. Everyone goes through this sorts of experiences and feelings like heartbreak, disappointment, grief, loss, pain, frustration, envy, jealousy, rejection, anxiety, depression, disappointment.”
I’m probably repeating myself now, but all of this painful feelings are just part of the human condition and part of what it is, be alive. It doesn’t make you broken that you’re feeling them, it makes you human and that’s like what unites us. So just really reminding yourself, “I’m not the only person going through this right now, this doesn’t not make me broken, this does not make me like a bad human or a failure or like crazy, or any of the kinds of pathologizing terms that we call ourselves when we experience something that we believe is not in line with that happiness movement that I talked about earlier.
So the common humanity piece is really helpful. Not for like being like, “Oh, everyone else feels this so therefore you shouldn’t be upset.” It’s more like, “Hey, you’re not broken, it’s cool, it’s okay to feel this way, like make space for it,” you know? Those are like the main — that’s what self-compassion is ultimately. Just to recap, it’s the mindfulness piece, it’s the self-kindness piece, it’s the common humanity piece and when you can kind of bring all of those into your experience or any painful experience, it is like that umbrella or that jacket in a storm that’s going to be really helpful for you in weathering it.
[0:29:06.8] MB: I’d love to dig in more on perfectionism, that’s something that we’ve had a lot of listeners email in and ask about and are very interested in and I love the definition that you use, which is the idea that you’re self-worth is dependent on being better than other people. Tell me more about that.
[0:29:25.3] MB1: Totally. So I define perfectionism as like having five characteristics and yeah, like I said, that’s sort of like self-worth being dependent on being better than other people. That’s definitely one of them and really how I define that one is, your self-worth is basically dependent on your achievements and your performance and outcomes and doing and productivity and how you look and inevitably because we judge our performance in comparison to other people, and comparison to what the “average performance” might be and that’s like our frame of reference then yeah, actually it is basically like being better than others. Being the best and so that’s a huge part of it.
But there are also several other components that I think are really important and that we don’t always recognize when we think of perfectionism. There’s obviously like the fear of failure piece and that’s like a pretty classic one. But really what’s underneath that is like a fear of difficult emotions and, in my opinion, that’s really what’s at the root of all the problems in the world. We don’t know how to sit with our uncomfortable emotions and in our attempt to alleviate our emotional pain, we react impulsively or we react in like none-mindful ways. So basically it’s like yes, there’s the fear of the feelings that come along with failure, but there’s also just the fear of any uncomfortable emotion. A fear of like the emotions that come about with uncertainty, we’re feeling out of control. Because those are really uncomfortable experiences, however they’re very inevitable experiences in life.
So people who are highly perfectionistic tend to be incredibly like routine and want to make sure that they can predict exactly how something’s going to go, and that they feel this illusion of control in their behavior or their environment because the thought of feeling like anxiety or feeling out of control or feeling inadequacy or whatever other difficult emotions they’re struggling with is really, really terrifying. So they kind of create this box that they stay in and this sort of like illusion that they’ve got it all together with themselves, but what that comes out of is like not really taking risks or not putting themselves into situations where they might fail or where they might feel uncomfortable emotions.
It’s like this vicious cycle because there’s then the perception that they never really fail at anything or they never feel difficult emotions and they’re like succeeding but the reason they’re “succeeding” is because they’re not taking any risks that whatever allowed them to fail. So that whole — the fear of the difficult emotions is like a big one there. But then there are two other ones that are really indicative of perfectionism. One is this idea of the critical inner voice. So I mentioned that earlier, like just being super hard on ourselves and responding to ourselves in ways that we would never speak to a friend.
That perpetuates all the other stuff because it’s like, “Oh well, if I know that if I fail in my eyes or I don’t meet expectations, then I’m going to respond to myself by being a huge asshole and basically abusing myself and I don’t have like the tools to cope with that pain, then I’m definitely not going to take risks. Because if I fail, the way that I cope with failure is by essentially like self-abuse.” Then final one is these unrealistically high expectations. Again, it’s like all such a vicious cycle because then you have this unrealistically high expectations that are very inflexible as well. It’s like, “I expect myself to perform at 100%.”
Let’s say you wake up and you’re like super sick or you get dumped or your mom’s in the hospital or they’re just like things going on in your life or you’re just like in a low mood, right? PMSing, and you still hold yourself to those unrealistically high expectations. So we almost set ourselves up for failure in doing that and so it’s like this really paralyzing, super anxiety provoking way of relating to yourself and to life because it’s like you have to walk this fine, fine line where if you take the wrong step, everything crumbles and that’s why often times people who relate to being perfectionistic, can identify with being like they think they’re super anal or they’re high strung or they just don’t know how to relax and it’s because like there’s so much riding on whatever their next step is because at any wrong turn, everything could crumble and they’ll feel so terrible about themselves.
Just like recap those five things for anyone listening. Fear of failure, fear of uncomfortable feelings, unrealistically high expectations, critical inner voice, and then your self-worth being dependent on these outcomes and achievements which can often lead to people feeling as though they’re bipolar. I get a lot of clients come in and they’re like, “Pretty sure I’m bipolar. Yesterday I felt really great, I was super happy. I looked good and things were going well at work,” and then the next day they’re like, “Then today I’m having a fat day and you know, I got like rejected by this guy and got feedback on this presentation and they said I needed to work on this thing. I just basically feel like a failure of a human.” And it’s like, “Well that’s not being bipolar, that’s having your self-worth be very dependent on the outcomes and achievements piece. Those are the kind of five factors of perfectionism.
[0:34:48.2] MB: That’s incredible and so much of that stuff, I think, not only resonates with me but I think will really resonate with a lot of our listeners. I feel like in many cases, I put a lot of pressure on myself and I’m curious, kind of walk me through maybe sort of a really simple example of an internal dialogue that you would use to kind of back away from something like that.
[0:35:09.4] MB1: Sure, yeah, what’s some — can you give me an example of what would be a position in which you’d be putting pressure on yourself?
[0:35:14.4] MB: I mean I think all kinds of different things. I don’t know if I have a specific instance.
[0:35:18.2] MB1: Okay, well let’s think of what would be something that listeners would relate to? Okay, so I think as women, we put a lot of — and men too obviously, but we put a lot of pressure on ourselves for our appearance and definitely that might be like, in terms of like how we feel and everything like that and not feeling sexy but a lot of times like women and people who are very perfectionistic put a lot of pressure on themselves around weight and like reaching a certain kind of goal that they perceive to be, again, that kind of like answer to their pain or will make them finally good enough, or help them finally reach that place where they never feel anxiety anymore, you know?
Or it might be a way of maintaining this illusion of like kind of control and not having to deal with the anxiety that might say that they’re not good enough, you I know? So I think with that example, there’s like the pressure of this ultimate goal or a pressure to always be a certain way that unfortunately really contaminates the joy that we could possibly have in life because it takes us away, it takes us out of any moment where we could actually just be there and experience it, and enjoy it because we’re constantly thinking like, “Oh, you know, what am I — I have to make sure that I’m getting to the gym, I have to make sure that I’m exercising. Or I have to make sure that it’s like, you know, I stay with this really tight parameters of my expectations for myself or my appearance.”
In that case like self-compassion can be so powerful because it’s this idea that’s like, “Hey, hold up, your self-worth is not dependent on a number on the scale and when you’re on your death bed, is it really going to be that important how much you weight when you were 28, or whatever? And is that what you look for in your friends and in your partners, like their physical appearance, is that what’s most important?” And kind of like tapping in more deeply into your values and things like that. Just essentially giving yourself permission to be imperfect.
Now, that’s something where it’s like I guess the pressure piece is more around this ultimate goal, which is a more — like that’s kind of perfectionism in like a systemic sense I suppose. But then there’s also like the perfectionism where I think might be more related to what you were talking about, which is like a performance piece that’s like more like an individual experience. So let’s say it’s like giving a presentation. So we have this pressure on ourselves and our mind starts to tell us things like, “You are, you have to ace this presentation and if you screw up then that means that like you are a — you’re unhirable and like you are just like a waste of life and no one’s ever going to take you seriously and oh my god, then you're not going to be able to get a job and like then there’s going to — six months are going to go by and you’re going to be unemployed and you’re going to have a gap on your resume and then what’s going to happen and then nobody’s ever going to want to hire you and then you’re going to become homeless and then you're like going to die,” or whatever.
We have these kind of like spiralistic thinking of believing that if something doesn’t go as planned with this pressure that we’re putting on ourselves then the worst thing ever is going to happen. It’s interesting because often times we don’t actually even like reach the point of, “Oh, I’m going to be homeless.” There’s just this like intense anxiety and fear around what happens if it doesn’t go how I expect or hope it to go? It can be helpful in those situations where you’re feeling a lot of pressure around your performance, whether it is like the presentation or the interview or the date or whatever to be like, “Okay, instead of this visualization chip,” I mean, and don’t get me wrong, visualization can be helpful.
But instead of being like, “This is going to go perfectly, 100% yeah, it’s going to go so well, I’m not going to screw up at all,” which actually can keep our anxiety quite high because it keeps us in that very tight place where we can’t screw up, it can be helpful to be like, “Hey, you know what? You’re probably going to jumble your words at some point, you know? There might be something you say that doesn’t make a ton of sense or maybe your face is going to go red or maybe your palms are going to sweat a little bit and like maybe you’re not going to — in fact, you’re definitely not going to meet your expectations in every way because you’re a human and there’s like no, you’re not a robot, there’s no way you can make this go perfectly. But that’s okay.”
Being able to permit yourself a little bit of like wiggle room in terms of the performance itself, that’s one way that you’re going to make your expectations like more realistic and thus make the anxiety less overwhelming because really when you think about it, all of our painful emotions to a certain extent are come out of like the disparity between our expectations and our reality. If your expectations are super high, there’s more of a chance that like your reality is going to fall below those expectations and in that space is going to be like disappointment, rejection, shame, guilt, anxiety, frustration like all those sorts of things.
So when we can kind of like lower the expectations, not in the sense that you’re becoming complacent or you're not still expecting success from yourself. But when you can make them like a little bit more realistic and be like, “Hey, there’s little more wiggle room there for having like the odd jumble of your words here and there or the odd sort of like embarrassing comment or something because you’re human and like that’s going to happen, then it alleviates the possibility of such strong emotions as a result of not reaching those expectations and then it also alleviates like the anxiety that we feel when we are expecting ourselves to hit that unrealistically high place. I’m like having a moment right now myself where I’m like, “I don’t know if this is really making any sense? And I don’t know if it’s going to be helpful,” you know?
[0:41:08.7] MB: It’s making a ton of sense, I think it’s super helpful.
[0:41:11.9] MB1: Okay, that’s good to hear. But you know, it’s interesting because even as I’m saying all of that, in my mind, I’m like, “This is interesting, I’m saying these things, but I wonder if this is actually helpful to the listener?” And like, “Oh my gosh, I wonder what Matt’s thinking right now? Is he going to go — is he and his producer after this going to be talking about this being like, “Wow, that girl was out to lunch,” right? I still have my mind that tells me this sorts of things and of course it can be helpful to seek a little bit of assurance and be like, “Matt, do I sound crazy?”
But it’s also helpful to just be like, “You know what? If that is the case, it’s okay,” you know? “You did your best, not everything you’re going to say is going to make perfect sense and that’s all right,” right? I think, really the central kind of theme there is like permit yourself to be a human, permit yourself to make some errors, that’s okay. The other thing that we tend to do is we just do something called globalizing. So when we don’t meet our expectations, such as let’s say it’s like the presentation and one presentation or one interview goes poorly and then we’re like, “Oh my god, I’m so bad at public speaking, I should never do this again, I am like the worst, I’m just like, I’m not a public speaker, I’m not good at that.”
Because we had a really hard time with the experience of “failure” in our eyes and so in order to prevent ourselves from ever feeling it again, we’re like, “I’m just never going to do that again, I’m going to avoid those situations and I determined that I am bad at public speaking or bad at you know, speaking in front of audiences or bad at giving presentations so I’m never going to do it.” That’s like very unhelpful because it prevents us from ever having opportunities to grow and learn and practice which is like what we need to get better at things.
But ultimately also, it’s not the truth. You have one negative experience where you don’t meet your expectations or like you really bomb something out of countless experiences where you probably rocked it. That’s not helpful to be like, “Og no, I now suck at this,” right? That’s something to keep in mind as well, alongside this whole “let yourself be human” thing, also remember like don’t make an interpretation that because you failed once, you are a failure you know? Because you bombed a presentation that you don’t know how to give presentations. Or because you had one bad date that you’re undatable, you know?
I would say in terms of things that people can take away from this, trying to really keep in mind those two major things of being like, let yourself be a human rather than telling yourself everything’s going to go perfectly, actually tell yourself you know what? Things aren’t going to go perfectly. Aim for like 80% in every area of your life, just aim for 80% and be like, “Look, I got 20% wiggle room, that’s cool, 80% is awesome.” That’s going to help alleviate a lot of your anxiety and then also just constantly reminding yourself like one instance of “failure” in your eyes does not make you a failure at whatever you’re’ trying to do well.
[0:43:58.5] MB: So, I’m curious for somebody that kind of striving for achievement, excellence, wants to be at the top of their field, how do you strike a balance between that and kind of the idea of self-compassion and sort of being kind to yourself?
[0:44:14.1] MB1: Totally, I think that’s a great question and I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with when they’re starting to move away from perfectionism and be like, “Okay, hold on, if I’m not performing to be the best like how do I still make sure that I’m successful and how do I still make sure that I’m not going to end up like not getting out of bed and gaining 200 pounds and just like dropping out of school or not working or whatever?”
So I think the first thing to recognize is that like, a real characteristic of perfectionism is all or nothing thinking. So we tend to think like, “Oh my gosh, if I’m not killing myself, trying to strive for success, I’m going to become like what I completely have zero respect for, which is like this crazy lazy person who’s just like a free loader and has no desire to live their life and it’s just like a waste. So we have the all or nothing thinking when it comes to that. So the first thing to recognize is, look, if you start being a little bit more self-compassionate to yourself, it actually enhances your performance because what it does is it gives you, it empowers you to take risks and you need to take risks and step out of your comfort zone to grow and to get better and to succeed more.
So self-compassion is actually a tool for success. It’s not a tool that’s going to just like — it’s not like self-pity and just telling yourself you don’t need to keep striving for growth and development. So first of all just changing a bit of your understanding around what self-compassion actually means. It’s really like there to enhance your performance rather than deplete it. But then also like coming back to your values, ultimately. Again, having our self-worth and why we’re on this earth being dependent on, I don’t know, some recognition that it’s also impermanent.
No one else really cares about too much and we’re the ones who put the most pressure on ourselves to look a certain way and achieve a certain amount. Who are we really doing this for and why? And what is that going to bring us? And to starting to ask these bigger questions which you’re not going to answer in one sitting but it’s something to meditate on and something to think about more and be like, “Okay, do I want to continue to ride this rollercoaster of feeling good when everything is going well in my life but it being like a huge liability,” because you don’t have a lot of control and all these painful things in life are inevitable? Or do you want to come back to a more sustainable place of self-worth which would be like, “Let me take a look at my values,” and lead with values versus performance.
Something that I was really huge for me was changing my perspective around what is productive, to viewing it as meaningful. When we think of, “Okay I have to be productive all the time,” there are only a few things that bin to the ball of productivity, right? Whereas if I can take a step back and be like, “Okay, I want my life to be meaningful.” Do I want my life to be productive? Why? So that when I die I can leave behind a bunch of papers that no one’s really going to read or I can feel really good about like the weight that I reached when I was X age? That it’s ultimately going to change because everything is impermanent. It really comes back to this idea of think about when I am on my death bed how do I want to look back on my life and what will have been important to me and what really does make me feel good moment to moment?
Yes, achieving to a certain extent does that, but it’s also very fleeting and with perfectionism we achieve something but then we raise the bar higher because it’s never good enough because there’s this fear of letting ourselves bask in our successes or enjoyment. So for me personally, I really enjoy connecting and most humans do. Again, that’s a very primal instinct of ours is to connect and to have intimacy with people and I also really enjoy learning. I also really enjoy challenge but not because I want to achieve something. Because I love the process of creating and that’s where I get my meaning from.
So I guess I’d encourage listeners to think, “What gives me a sense of meaning and purpose in life and can I lead with that as opposed to leading with a focus on outcomes and achievements?” And when you lead with that, it’s like you win every time. You’re always successful, because even if the company that you’re creating isn’t making the revenue you were hoping for, you know that your desire to build and create and help or have an impact or whatever it is that is a reason behind you starting this company, you’re still doing that. You’re still succeeding in all of those areas in terms of living with your values and leading with that. Yeah, maybe you’re not getting the revenue that you are hoping for.
But at the end of the day, you’re still meeting your expectations in terms of living in line with your values and that’s how humans stay happy, is by feeling that sense of meaning and feeling like we’re here for a reason and feeling connected. And so I would encourage people to really start to peel away some of these onion layers and question some of their beliefs around what they’re here for. For me, a really formative moment was when I was 24 and I was finishing my masters and I was struggling pretty seriously with anorexia and I was very, very, very thin and I was with this guy and I had this world view that if I am successful and I am a certain weight, I can make sure that the world would not crumble around me and everything will be good and everything will be fine.
And I was not in a happy place at all, but these excessive like overworking and overachieving and maintaining a very low weight were my ways of feeling good enough and that was my perfectionism. That was how it manifested and then the guy dumped me. He left me for someone who’s in his master program. It was the most devastating breaking open experience of my life and it literally took me two years to get over, but it was also the most transformative experience of my life because not only did I then learn how to deal with difficult emotions and “become friends with them”, I guess you could say. But it also turned upside down this world view of mine that was like that’s what’s important in life and that’s what people value in you and that’s the way to feel happy and that’s the way to feel good is to achieve and do this and do that.
You know what? People aren’t going to love you more based on how much you achieve and if there are people who are doing that, those aren’t the people you want to surround yourself with. So come back to what do you value, what is important to you? When you’re on your death bed what do you want to have felt like you’ve experienced in this life? And do you want to hide behind the desk for the next 50 years and then die? Is that a good life to you? Maybe for some people it is, I don’t know? But I guess I would encourage people to really look at that.
And the other thing, I know I have been talking for a long time, but the other thing that was really formative for me is Allen Watts’s perspective on viewing life not even viewing it as a journey because for some people it’s like, you know, view it as a journey and it’s all about the destination. Yeah, that’s great but let’s take it to the next step. He talks about viewing it as a song. You don’t listen to a song because you are waiting for it to end. You’re not trying to get to a destination point. You’re listening to it to have an experience. You want to have emotions evoked and sometimes songs make you feel crappy in a really healing way and sometimes they make you feel like — I mean, that’s why there’s so many kinds of music.
And so try to think of your life as a song and if you can just experience all of it and be open to all of it and trust that there are different emotions that you’re going to experience and you’re there to pay attention to it and to be in it rather than to get somewhere, those were super performative experiences for me. So hopefully there’s something in there that your listeners can take from those pieces of advice around taking away the — I guess finding the balance between achieving yes and seeing what’s important, but why is it important and how can you find that balance where you can still experience life and feel happy?
[00:52:23.3] MB: You know it’s funny, I’m a huge fan of Allan Watts and he creeps into a surprising number of conversations we have here on the show. So I am really glad that you brought him up. That was an incredible explanation and some really good insights. For listeners who are curious and want to do some more homework on this, I know you mentioned two books already, what are some resources that you think would be good for them to check out?
[00:52:45.9] MB1: Yeah, for sure. Definitely those books that I mentioned. So it was The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert and Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff and actually I think Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff is a probably more practical one for people if they want to choose one between the two and it’s more in lined like it’s a woman who’s written it. She talks about traditionally female experiences that we go through. But of course, I would love for you to check out my website, meganbruneau.com, there’s oneshrinksperspective.com, but also you can see more of my resources all compiled together at meganbruneau.com and there’s a lot that I have written on self-compassion and overcoming perfectionism and things like that.
Really anything, a hugely formative book for me was When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. That’s more of secular Buddhism and that’s actually where self-compassion comes out of. It’s more or a — and mindfulness and all of that. It all comes out of secular Buddhism so it’s a very different way of relating to the world, relating to your feelings, relating to life. And if someone is going through a difficult time right now who’s listening to this podcast, that book absolutely changed my life. But the amount of people for whom it has changed their lives, just go to Amazon and read the reviews. So I really encourage people to read that book.
Chris Germer is another person who does a lot of work on this. Oh, what is his website? I think it’s mindfulofcompassion.com but I’m not 100% sure. Maybe I’ll get it back to you and you can put it in the show notes. But there are like, really just like anything in the realm of — you can just Google “self-compassion” and there are tons of sites that come up and just start to delve into this a little bit more deeply and download some audio meditations and stuff to your phone. Because a big part of self-compassion is actually becoming more in tune with our body and like feeling a sense of compassion from ourselves like physically.
So it’s not just a mental thing and for many people who are perfectionistic, we are so detached from our bodies. Like we don’t even — we have no idea what we’re feeling because what we feel is uncomfortable, we do something to turn it off. So we either like distract through some form of addiction or whatever, or we avoid it by like removing ourselves from the situation that’s making us feel that way or just never going into a situation that makes us feel that way.
So a big part of self-compassion is also becoming more in touch with your body. Listening to some meditations and things that can help you get more in touch with like actually what you’re feeling physically can be really helpful and then also like yoga. I think everyone should do yoga. It’s just such a great way to reconnect with your body and to practice a lot of the work that you learn reading these books, to actually implement it because you can have all the theory and all in the world but if you're not actually implementing it and experiencing it, it’s not going to be that super beneficial and it’s not going to help you rewire your brain so that your brain defaults to self-compassion, as mine does now finally like several years later. But it comes through the practice of actually learning a new language.
You will always have the language itself, criticism, you can go back to that if you want to but what we want to do is we want to help you learn how to default to self-compassion. In yoga you can start to practice being like, “Oh, this is interesting, I’m noticing I’m comparing myself to that person, they’re doing that pose better than I am. Or I notice I’m beating myself up because I can’t do this or I fell out of the pose. Or I notice that I’m like, being super, super competitive and you know, is that helpful for me? And what that’s like? And what emotions are going through it? Am I judging myself for being competitive?”
Maybe I can make space for my sense of comparing and being competitive, but also take a step back and be like, “Is this helpful for me? Can I relate in a different way?” So I guess I would recommend, check with those resources but also bring some form of mindfulness meditation, movement practice into your life where you can actually start to get to know yourself better and how perfectionism and self-criticism acts on you and then start to actually put into practice a lot of the stuff that you may have heard today and that you will learn through reading these resources.
[0:56:39.0] MB: Well we will make sure to include all of those resources in the show notes at scienceofsuccess.co. One more time, where can people find you online?
[0:56:46.9] MB1: Yeah, check me out — so meganbruneau.com and then you can also find me like I’m on Instagram, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I’m on YouTube. I’d love for you to send me an email if you have any questions or if you just want to reach out and say “hey” or reflect or whatever. It’s just email@example.com. Again, hopefully Matt can include this in the show notes. Yeah, so definitely reach out to me. I love hearing form people, it helps me come back to my values which is like “I think I’m on this earth to help”, you know?
It helps remind me that even though there are a lot of trolls out there who love to say really negative things, because that’s a part of this world as well, there are also people that appreciate it. I love those sort of warm fuzzies and stuff like that but I also want to help you on your journey in whatever way I can so if there’s a question you had or if there’s a resource you’re looking for, let me know and I’ll do my best to help guide you on your journey because we’re all in this together.
[0:57:44.2] MB: Well, Megan, thank you so much. This has been a fascinating conversation, full of actionable insights and some really great stuff. So we really appreciated having you on the show.
[0:57:53.1] MB1: It was awesome and it’s such a pleasure to be here Matt. Thank you so much for having me.
[0:57:56.4] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the science of success. Listeners like you are why we do this podcast. The emails and stories we receive from listeners around the globe bring us joy and fuel our mission to unleash human potential. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story, or just say hi, shoot me an email. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you, and I read and respond to every listener email.
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