264: Overcoming Perfectionism: Building Self-Compassion for Gifted and Neurodivergent Adults

Are you a gifted or neurodivergent perfectionist struggling to overcome the damaging effects of perfectionism?

In this episode of the Embracing Intensity podcast, host Aurora Remember Holtzman invites special guest Aileen Kelleher, a therapist and life coach, to delve into the topic of overcoming perfectionism. Together, they explore the intersection between perfectionism and giftedness and discuss the various ways in which perfectionism can impact our lives. From high expectations and low self-esteem to time limits and parental expectations, Aurora and Aileen shed light on the challenges faced by perfectionists and provide practical strategies for managing perfectionistic tendencies and fostering self-compassion.

Join the Embracing Intensity community at embracingintensity.com to dive deeper into understanding and overcoming your own perfectionism. Gain access to courses, tools, and support from like-minded individuals who appreciate and celebrate the power of high personal standards. You can also, explore the free self-regulation workbook for gifted and neurodivergent adults, titled “Harnessing the Power of Your Intensity,” which offers a practical guide for overcoming perfectionism and embracing your unique abilities. Visit the show notes or embracingintensity.com for more information and resources.

By addressing the problem of perfectionism and providing practical strategies for overcoming it, this episode offers valuable insights and guidance for high achievers, gifted individuals, and neurodivergent adults who struggle with the damaging effects of perfectionism in their own lives. Tune in to gain a deeper understanding of perfectionism and learn how to cultivate self-compassion and embrace your unique abilities.

In this episode:

  • The definition and negative impact of perfectionism, including its association with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
  • Overlaps between perfectionism and giftedness, such as high expectations, sensitivity, and self-criticism.
  • The unhealthy coping mechanisms often employed by perfectionists, such as procrastination and avoidance.
  • Strategies for managing perfectionism, including incremental steps, setting realistic goals, and practicing self-compassion.
  • The importance of recognizing and embracing the messy nature of overcoming perfectionism and learning new skills.
  • The role of self-compassion and cultivating present-moment awareness in overcoming perfectionism and achieving high performance.
  • The damaging effects of perfectionism on daily life, relationships, and emotional well-being.
  • Practical tips for parents and educators to support gifted children and help them navigate the pressures of perfectionism.
  • The unique challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in managing perfectionistic behaviors and finding balance in their lives.


* Rough Transcript *

Ep. 264


Aileen: Our inner critic can be relentless where it just will go after us and not stop and it can leave us in a place of really, you know, intense emotional pain. There’s also a very high stress levels for perfectionists and burnout is common. There’s difficulty in relationships because sometimes when we’re very harsh and critical of ourselves, it also projects outward to be harsh and critical of others.

Introduction to Embracing Intensity Podcast

Aurora: Welcome to the Embracing Intensity podcast. I’ll be sharing interviews and tips for gifted, creative, twice exceptional, and outside the box thinkers who use their fire in a positive way. My name is Aurora Remember Holtzman. After years of feeling too much, I finally realized that intensity is the source of my greatest power.

Now, instead of beating myself up about not measuring up to my own self imposed standards, I’m on a mission to help people embrace their own intensity and befriend their brains so they can share their gifts with the world through the Embracing Intensity community, coaching, educational assessment, and other tools to help you use your fire without getting burned.

You can join us at embracingintensity. com.

Yeah. Yeah.


Podcast Goals and Upcoming Speakers

Aurora: Off to a running start for 2024 with the goal this year to get back to two episodes per month. That way I can catch up on old speaker recordings that I haven’t gotten on the podcast yet. As well as get some more interviews in, because I’ve really missed doing those.

I am super thrilled about my lineup of speakers coming up this year with our first one, with Dr. Kimberly Douglas on gamified learning for AuDHD adults. Play as a tool for decolonizing neurodivergence. And then in February we have Christine Fonseca who is rebooting her book on emotional intensity for gifted folks. And then Jeff Harry in March, we’ll be talking about dismantling the patriarchy through play. In April, we have Sharon Burton, of spark your creative, who’s launching a book that month as well.

And then after that, we have dates to be determined for Princess Fortier on healing, power of music, Bob Yamtich on nonviolent communication. Jenelle Woodlief on nervous system regulation. Chris Johnson on neurodivergent community. And I will also be talking about self-assessment tools. So pretty exciting lineup coming up.

And I’m also gearing up to release new content in the planner club every month again, and this month I released a series of sweary affirmations. So affirmation coloring pages with a little bit of a sweary bent to them. So they’re pretty fun. I just released those this weekend.

Membership and Access to Content

Aurora: So check it out, join our planner club for the planner content, and you can join our full access membership for the planner content course and all of our call discussion library. And now you can also access just the call discussion library, all of our past calls, even the ones that haven’t been on the podcast yet.

And discussions you can find there for just 2 .49 to start and then 4. 99 a month. So you can access all the content for 19.99 and we have. Different accessible options for you from. 4. 99 to 19.99. So check it out on my website, embracing intensity.com under memberships.

This one is a recording on perfectionism that we did in may of 2022. And when I went back to that time, because of the big move, I had a bunch of fantastic calls that never made it on the podcast yet.

So I’ll be editing those and adding those as we go. But if you want to access them right away, you can join the guests call library. Enjoy.

Awesome. Welcome. Welcome everyone.

Introduction to Guest Speaker – Aileen Kelleher

Aurora: And I am super thrilled here to have Aileen Kelleher, who is an amazing therapist and talks about giftedness and twice exceptionality. And today she’s talking about a. super, super relevant topic of perfectionism. So welcome Aileen.

Aileen: Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m Eileen Kelleher. I’m a therapist and a life coach. I’m primarily focusing on working with people in the gifted community. My therapy practice is all gifted and twice exceptional children and families.

And then my life coaching practice is with gifted and also people who identify as perfectionists or overachievers, just that kind of like high intensity sensitive type of personality. I really enjoy working with. So. Yeah, I had done a presentation on perfectionism a little while ago just created a course for it.

And so I’m just going to kind of go over some of the key points from that, but it’s definitely a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I, you know, As with a lot of things that we teach, you know, the reason we’re passionate about it is because it’s something that we often have dealt with ourselves.

Or I would say I’m a recovering perfectionist. It’s something that I’ve definitely learned how to work with and become compassionate towards myself and manage my thinking a lot better. But I think that, you know, we’re always continuing to learn and grow. So I don’t, all of this stuff I share, it’s not to make you think that I know everything about it.

Just kind of what I’ve learned over the years in working with perfectionism and myself and other people.

Understanding Perfectionism and its Impact

Aileen: So, so when it comes, there’s an intersection between perfectionism and giftedness that a lot of people experience. The definition of perfectionism in the American Psychological Association dictionary is the, to the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance.

in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems. So as you can see, perfectionism isn’t this kind of benign character trait of like, Oh, I’m such a perfectionist. You know, like how some people will use the term OCD kind of flippantly when actually it’s something that can cause a lot of real pain and difficulty in people’s lives.

So there are certain overlaps of characteristics of gifted people that also relate to perfectionism.

The Intersection of Perfectionism and Giftedness

Aileen: So there’s the high expectations of yourself and others. There’s this that sensitivity, which will leave us easily wounded and have a need for emotional support high levels of frustration. So particularly when we feel like we’re not meeting the standards we have Sometimes a volatile temper especially related to our perceptions of what failure is and whether or not we’re failing.

There’s also the strong power of critical thinking, skepticism, self criticism, which don’t necessarily have to be negative, right? But it can be when we turn it in on ourselves too harshly. There’s this heightened receptivity and the urge to perfect things. This kind of idea of wanting to create something of beauty.

And then gifted people are also often vigilant about fairness, justice, threats to humanity. And so that can create sometimes kind of like this moral perfectionism. anD then there’s also let’s see. So in terms of the high standards of giftedness, it’s. kind of natural for gifted people and it doesn’t mean it’s a necessarily wrong thing.

It’s okay as Like, as long as it’s motivated by internal values and what we truly, like, want to create as opposed to these external expectations that make, we may feel pressure to live up to something external. That’s when it can kind of create this difficulty within ourselves. So one of the cool things is that we, as.

people who identify as gifted or twice exceptional get to choose what excellence means to us. It doesn’t have to be, you know, just defined as a response to perceived judgment from others. It can be this kind of beautiful, developing. Mysterious quality that continues to unfold as we continue to create and do what we love.

Right? And it’s also okay to feel good about like the rewards and the positive aspects of our healthy striving for, you know, pursuing the things we love. So there’s also, let’s see.

This sense of the difficulties when giftedness and perfectionism overlap can be the sense of urgency. So moving at a fast pace, which when we’re kind of when we’re in flow that can be more comfortable and feel good. But there’s also sometimes a sense of urgency that can be cause anxiety and impatience that can be difficult to deal with.

We also can get kind of bogged down in a maze of our own making within our minds where we kind of create these traps for ourselves that we can’t seem to get out of in, as in regards to our own abilities and what we what we need to do our beliefs about what how the things we do in life need to be created.

And then there’s also the, this sense of avoidance and disguise. So hiding out in our inner world is something that some gifted people can deal with. Especially if you have that kind of imaginational intensity, it’s easy to kind of You know, create a fantasy place in your mind or in other areas of your life where you can escape, but eventually we all have to usually face the thing we’re avoiding so that can create more trouble for us.

And then also the gifted mind content just tend towards worry if it doesn’t have something to occupy our attention. So, you know, personally with myself, you know, in a recent argument, argument with my husband, like if I don’t have something to keep my mind busy, I will look for problems. Right. And like, there won’t necessarily be an issue, but I’ll look for where maybe I perceive one thing to not be perfect.

And then, you know, it can create an issue where there Wouldn’t necessarily be one if I was focused on myself and the things I care about, you know, so, these are just some of the traps that we can kind of create for ourselves. And then the gifted label can also be difficult for some people in terms of what people feel like they have to live up to or whether or not they’re quote unquote smart or that kind of excessive focus on achievement can be really problematic.


The Pain Points of Perfectionism

Aileen: The main kind of pain points for perfectionists in general are intense feelings of shame when mistakes are made kind of going into that spiral where you kind of feel like you can’t get out of it, the bodily sensations that can come when you make a mistake, especially publicly that rumination.

Also, our inner critic can be relentless where it just will go after us and not stop and it can leave us in a place of really, you know, intense emotional pain. There’s also a very high stress levels for perfectionists and burnout is common. There’s difficulty in relationships because sometimes when we’re very harsh and critical of ourselves, it also projects outward to be harsh and critical of others.

And then we also sometimes are often struggle to enjoy the achievements or life in general, because we are always so focused on the next thing, you know, nothing is ever enough in a way. Okay.

Perfectionism and Mental Health

Aileen: And then, yeah, there’s just these strong connections between perfectionism and mental health difficulties. So, one of the main positive aspects of this is that through researching these connections, self compassion has been found to be a great protective factor for anxiety and depression, related to perfectionism.

So that’s one thing I’ll talk about a little later. Also for children, there seems to be, there was this kind of big longitudinal study done around perfectionism and young people. And it seemed to show that rates of perfectionism are climbing. And so that’s just something to about if you are a parent that You know, sometimes our society at large the competition in schools, the standardized testing, the high pressure on like college acceptance can cause parents to put pressure on themselves to like do well by their children.

And then that also puts pressure on children to achieve more. So that’s one thing to be aware of. And I have some ways of managing that a little later on. And then there is also a Study that says some aspects of perfectionism or genetics. So that’s something to be aware of as well.

And also researchers suggest that parents can model good behavior by addressing their own perfectionistic tendencies, which, you know, we see a lot like, or at least I see a lot in my work with families is that it’s very important for parents to address their own emotional difficulties before trying to kind of have their children fix their own, right?

So like, let’s say your child is dealing with a lot of anxiety. It can be really helpful for you first to manage your own anxiety and get help with your own anxiety. And then your actual work on yourself will create a container and a space where your child can actually then find some support for their own and they also can go to therapy and things like that.

And so showing unconditional love and affection towards yourself and towards others can be a way to model positive behavior. And then, so if we were to break down perfectionism, it, it could be considered to be made up of distressing thoughts. Emotional pain and then destructive action. So perfectionists are the type of people who, which, you know, overlaps with giftedness.

They feel every kind of bump in the road. As this one researcher says, Thomas Curran that we’re very stress sensitive. So as like, let’s say we’re working on a project as we’re working on the project, we feel every time there’s like an issue. or a struggle. It’s like we are very sensitive to that and can make it into something bigger that causes us to quit easily or stop trying because that sensitivity can be so difficult for us to overcome.

And then we emotionally tend to respond more harshly to failure as well or perceived failure and can be really avoidant when things aren’t perfect. So let me go. Okay, yeah. So the unhealthy kind of coping techniques that we tend to use as perfectionists are procrastination, preparing and planning excessively, overworking, controlling, and avoidance.

So we use all of these. coping techniques are not helpful to us. Usually they, you know, they start out as a way to try to protect us from fear or avoid feelings of fear. But ultimately, as we get older, we often find that those ways of coping with fear are not helpful. They can lead to difficulties emotionally and in our relationships.

So going into strategies and solutions for ourselves.

Strategies and Solutions for Perfectionism

Aileen: Before I start with that, one of the things I do want to say is to remind ourselves that recovery from perfectionism can’t be perfect, right? There’s not striving to be completely free of perfectionism is almost a perfectionist type of goal.

That what we have is a process of healing and growing that it may be messy. It’s okay to need support. It’s okay to make mistakes. And you know, like I said, get in an argument with my husband about something that didn’t really exist. Like it’s okay to because that’s how we learn. That’s how we identify.

Oh, this is where this issue is coming up again. And here’s how I can, you know, learn to manage it in the future. So having that reminder of yours to yourself that. If you do make a mistake, you don’t have to go into this thing of like, Oh, I always do this and I’m never going to get better and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.

It’s like learning to manage the messiness and learning to accept and be okay with the ways that healing occurs, which are often not linear. Okay. And then, so it can be helpful for me. I find it helpful to know what’s happening in the body when we’re dealing with perfectionist stress. And so for example, we will start with a worry, usually it’s like a worry about performing well.

So that worry kind of signals to the brain and body to respond. almost as if there’s a life or death situation because our stress can be so intense. It can feel that way to our body. So then our sympathetic nervous system, the fight, flight, freeze, fawn gets activated. And that often sends cortisol and other stress hormones through our body.

So our heart rate. Our breathing speeds up, our muscles tense, and then our brain becomes vigilant and on guard for new threats and starts to see danger everywhere, right? So it’s like the more our body is in stress, the more negative thoughts we’re actually going to have because we’re looking for threats.

And the more negative thoughts we have, the more our fight or flight system gets activated. So it can create this kind of vicious cycle that can be very hard to get out of. But for me and for others, it’s helpful to kind of know, okay, this is what my body is going through and what I need help with is interrupting those negative thoughts and interrupting the stress that is kind of a wash in my nervous system.

And so one of the ways to first work on this is to connect to your body with curiosity to notice where am I having these feelings of stress? Is there a shape, a size or a color I could assign, like you’re starting to become just more aware and connected with what is actually happening in your body when you’re feeling stressed.

And then as we become more aware of these sensations, it also helps us to know. Oh, this is the feeling that precedes me engaging in an unhealthy coping strategy of procrastination, overworking, controlling, etc. And so instead of engaging in one of those coping mechanisms, we can then choose or try to pivot and address the feelings of stress we’re having.

in a healthy way. So, an example can be through exercise, through breathing techniques through self compassion statements, through calling someone to help you kind of get your bearings. These are all ways that we can respond to the stress in a healthier way. So there’s two kind of main evidence based relaxation tools that tend to work.

Or be helpful for people, and it doesn’t mean it’s helpful for everyone, but I just like to throw them out there just as something that people can try. So, the breathing exercise of breathing in for four counts and then breathing out for six counts. And then repeating that at least six times that exercise.

When we have a longer exhale, it signals to our body that we’re safe. Because usually when we’re scared, we don’t have that longer exhale. It’s just a very quick and kind of almost hyperventilating type of breathing. And so if we can change our breathing, it signals to our body. that it’s okay that we don’t have to worry about a threat.

And so, when you, this type of exercise can be helpful. And then there’s progressive muscle relaxation, which is tightening and releasing muscles as you scan throughout your body. So there’s some really helpful ones on YouTube. There’s also for kids, the go noodle channel on YouTube has kid versions of both of these exercises.

So there’s something that can be adapted for adults and for children. And then another thing is play. So learning how to play can be hard for perfectionists because it may feel like kind of scary or confusing or awkward. So, but it’s often as kids, how we learn to self regulate. So, we can ask ourselves questions like, what did I like to do for fun when I was younger?

What are the things that get me feeling like I’m in a flow state where I’m fully in the moment? What sensory, experiences do I enjoy? And then you can also get some sensory tools to help experience that more often, which can sometimes be a form of play in of themselves. Like, there’s like these stretching exercise bands or silly putty, or.

Using crunchy candy. If you’re someone who likes that sensation fidgets, rhythmic movements. These are all things that can help us in our attempts to learn how to regulate some of our emotional ups and downs. And then also for adults, sometimes what’s regulating is just the stability and basic things that we do every day.

So like, cooking, organizing, cuddling with, you know, kids or animals or your partner doing puzzles, creating. So, I say that just so that, you know, play doesn’t have to be this like big. challenge to take on. Sometimes it can just be being present with the things we enjoy to do, we enjoy doing throughout the day.

aNd another thing that can be helpful is practicing letting yourself feel good. So that can be either looking like noticing something that You do that where you feel proud of yourself or a moment when you were with like a group of people like friends and you were laughing or having fun recalling those moments into your memory and into your body for 20 to 30 seconds a day has been shown to help you begin to be able to tolerate positive feelings.

For longer periods of time, it helps us to expand our ability to feel these things. So that, you know, we can also notice and gravitate towards those moments as opposed to always being focused on the stress and the threats. So that can be helpful exercise. And let’s see.

Practicing Self-Compassion and Overcoming Perfectionism

Aileen: So for some people also Self compassion statements can be really helpful, especially when you think there’s like this common myth that perfectionists believe that you can only motivate yourself through harsh and critical statements that like you have to do that in order to like kind of beat yourself up into getting things done.

But that actually ends up making us feel more stressed out and makes it harder for us to like, Focus and think and do something for a long period of time, or not necessarily long, but for however long we want to do it. So another approach is to try and have a compassionate voice with yourself. So, um, one way to think of it is like, what would you say to a friend?

So some phrases could be like, I love you and I don’t want you to suffer or I deeply care for you. And that is why I’d like to help you make a change and how you motivate yourself. So just simple phrases like that can help. remind you or like kind of switch off that harsh voice and change and soften into something that may be more helpful.

And then you can also help children with this by asking them what they would say to a friend, which they can often kind of conceptualize as well. And then let’s see. Oh, yeah. Another thing that can be helpful to bring up is the spotlight effect. So that’s researchers found that people tend to overestimate how much other people notice them or thinking about their flaws, or especially if we do something we think is embarrassing, we tend to think that like.

A lot more people have noticed it or are aware of it or thinking about it than actually are so it can be helpful to notice when you tend to have this when you tend to do this and then remind yourself that, okay, I can’t actually read people’s minds. I don’t actually know what people are thinking about me.

But Like, and so I can, I can root or ground into the moment and I can notice how you know what my senses are experiencing, or I can feel my feet on the ground or just like kind of refocusing to something that’s more calming and grounding for you.

Another thing that can be helpful is, practicing making mistakes on purpose in low stress environments. So that can be like, if you’re taking a Zumba class or a yoga class or playing a board game or something like that, you can practice purposefully, like making a mistake or making a quote unquote wrong move or whatever, and see what that feels like.

And. For a lot of people, sometimes it can start to become this fun thing where, like you can learn to laugh at yourself and be silly. And I think that practicing this with children can be fun as well. Like giving them the space to purpose. like, Oh, we dropped the, we dropped this bowl or, Oh my gosh, we dropped these cups and like practicing and showing them that it’s okay.

And that it’s just, it can be a silly thing. It can be fun. It doesn’t have to be this thing that produces so much stress. So yeah, so I think that those are some of the main ways that can be helpful with perfectionism and just, you know, kind of want to end with a reminder that you don’t have to be perfect in your recovery from perfectionism, that it’s a path that doesn’t just go up, that it can be winding and that that’s okay.

And that it’s okay to get help from others and from your community. And to continually be learning. So, so yeah, I think that’s all I have for today.

Aurora: Awesome. So much relatable information.

Do you have any, like, final thoughts, anything that you would like to share?

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Aileen: Yeah, well, just like, I think that exploring self compassion work can be really helpful and ways of slowing down and becoming more comfortable with being present and appreciating what is around us in the moment, as opposed to always like kind of rushing towards the next thing, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing stimulation, but I think it can also with perfectionists become this thing of avoidance of their life in general.

So, being able to cultivate that self compassion and slow down, I think has been really pivotal for me and others. So that would be one of the things.

Aurora: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

You can find the full discussion recording along with 40 other recordings on various topics related to giftedness and neurodivergence in the embracing intensity membership and guests call library.

Find the link in the show notes or at embracingintensity.com.

Embracing Intensity Community and Resources

Aurora: Looking for ways to embrace your own intensity? Join our Embracing Intensity community at embracingintensity. com, where you’ll meet a growing group of like minded people who get what it’s like to be gifted and intense and are committed to creating a supportive community, as well as access to our courses and tools to help you use your fire without getting burned.

There’s also a pay what you can option through our Patreon, where you can increase your pledge to help sustain the podcast or Or join us at a rate that better fits your needs. You can also sign up for my free Harnessing the Power of Your Intensity, a self regulation workbook for gifted, creative, and twice exceptional adults and teens.

All links can be found in the show notes or on EmbracingIntensity. com.

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