Is perfectionism affecting your work, relationships, sleep, and mood? It’s my life’s mission to help women recover from the anxiety and depression that comes with being a perfectionist. I’m here to teach you simple, evidence-based strategies to keep perfectionism from sabotaging your life, including your sleep.
This week, March 14-20, is Sleep Awareness Week. The week is designed to build awareness around sleep problems and educate us on how to get better sleep. While sleepless nights happen to all of us, perfectionists tend to have chronic trouble sleeping. But, do you know why?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about a third of us aren’t getting the sleep we need. And researchers are already studying the effects that the pandemic has had on our sleep, calling the phenomenon “COVID-somnia.” The research is clear that increased financial stress, new worries about our health and the health of our family, a shift to telework that has created a blur between our work and personal, and added caregiving responsibilities are the culprit.
Most of us are so busy during the day completing tasks, checking off to-dos, and reaching our goals, that our brain doesn’t have the time to review events from the day. We don’t have time to reflect on conversations that were had or prepare for what’s to come. When things finally quiet down at night and our head hits the pillow, our brain sees that time as a perfect opportunity to start to rehash the day.
Does this scenario sound like you? You’re 100% ready to hit the hay and you feel physically exhausted, but the minute you get into bed your mind gets spinning. While this is typical for most of us, for perfectionists, specifically, the thoughts are usually very self-critical. If you’re a perfectionist, your brain is not just replaying the day’s events. It is also dissecting everything you said, everything you did, everything you didn’t do or say but wish you would have, and judging it all pretty harshly. Perfectionists hold themselves to unrealistic, ideal standards. When they reflect back on the day and the times they didn’t reach this unrealistic goal, it creates regret, shame and anxiety that keeps you up as well. Whereas someone who isn’t a perfectionist may quickly run through the day’s events, like a highlight reel, and prepare for the day ahead by making a list of to-dos, perfectionists pick apart the day’s events with a fine toothed comb and catastrophize the events to come based on the unrealistic standards they set for themselves.
Don’t you wish you could just turn it all off? If you are a perfectionist, chances are these kinds of unhelpful patterns are deeply rooted, and it will take working to change those thoughts, likely with the help of a mental health professional. But, what can you do in the meantime to get some relief and fall asleep easier? I suggest three tools, based on research (links below):
1. Scheduling Worry Time
Setting aside a specific time before you get into bed to do the rehashing and dissecting that your brain is going to do when your head hits the pillow can be helpful. Use scheduled “worry” time to do all the things your mind does when you’re trying to sleep. Replay conversations and make to-do lists for tomorrow. Predict what might go wrong and plan ahead for it. Rehearse anything important, like a conversation you’re going to have with your boss. Give yourself permission to worry! Set a time for 15 minutes, and let your brain do what it does, without judgment. Your brain worries because it’s trying to protect you, so thank your brain, and then move on. Be sure to schedule worry time early enough in the day or evening that the worries don’t carry over to bedtime. My favorite time to schedule worry time is around 6PM, so I have time to enjoy the rest of my evening and still give myself an hour to wind down before bed.
2. Practice Gratitude
Gratitude has been proven to help people with a host of mental health issues, including getting better sleep. Your gratitude practice can be as formal or informal as you like. Typically, perfectionists (or recovering perfectionists, like me!) prefer more structure. Writing 3-5 things you’re grateful for each evening is one way to go. If you don’t want to add another structured activity to your day, something as simple as thinking about the things you’re grateful for while you brush your teeth or wash your face before bed can be an easy way to implement this. Gratitude lessens the intensity of worries and it helps us see a bigger picture, so our worries don’t seem so catastrophic. Decreasing the intensity of worries is going to help us fall and stay asleep easier.
3. Foster Self-Compassion
Research has shown that perfectionists have thoughts at bed that sound like this: “If only I had made another choice!” and “I wish I could undo it!” Recognizing that no one is perfect and that all of us could do better helps us be more self-compassionate. In my free guide, “7 Habits to Stop Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Life,” I share that naming our inner critic can be beneficial. Recognizing our inner critic is trying to protect us from future failure by amplifying our mistakes serves as a reminder that our brains are biased to see the negative. Viewing our mistakes through a lens of self-compassion prompts us to see that we are a work in progress, that we are committed to growing and learning, and that we will do better next time. When you notice your inner critic beating you up, congratulate yourself instead on the way you treated people today, the successes you had, or at the very least, the situations and interactions that you didn’t mess up on.
If you identify as a perfectionist, I hope these three tips help you get better sleep. You deserve it! Many of us have perfectionistic tendencies, and these tendencies in and of themselves aren’t necessarily a problem. But if you notice that perfectionism is sabotaging your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self-esteem, consider talking to a mental health professional, like a psychologist or masters’ level therapist. Visit www.psych-hike.com for details on the services I provide for perfectionists, including hike therapy, a great way to exercise your mind and your body.
And, if perfectionism is sabotaging your life, start the work by checking out my gift to you, a free guide I created with 7 daily habits you can start now to manage perfectionism. Like I said, it’s my mission to help women struggling with anxiety and depression recover and reach their full potential!
References and Resources:
Dr. Wetegrove-Romine’s Free Guide: 7 Habits to Stop Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Life
Centers for Disease Control
National Sleep Foundation
Digdon, Nancy and Koble, Amy (2011). Effects of constructive worry, imagery distraction, and gratitude interventions on sleep quality: a pilot study. Applied Psychology: Health and Well Being, 3 (2), 193-206.
Gilbert, Paul and Procter, Sue (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Clinical Psychology Psychotherapy, 13, 353–379.
Hurley, Dan (2020). Sleep neurologists call It ‘COVID-somnia’—increased sleep disturbances linked to the pandemic. Neurology Today, website.
Schenk, Lauren. Gratitude helps you get a good night’s sleep. Mindfulness Muse, website.
Schmidt, Ralph, et al. (2018). Too imperfect to fall asleep: perfectionism, pre-sleep counterfactual processing, and insomnia. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1288.