perfectionism and claiming shame

I received an email yesterday that said, “I love the idea of a read-along. I don’t think I have shame issues, but if you ever do something on perfectionism, I’ll be the first in line.” Her sign-off was followed by a short little sentence: “PS – they aren’t related are they?”

I emailed her back and explained the relationship between shame and perfectionism – where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame lurks around many of the familiar corners (struggles with authenticity, addiction, judging, blaming, etc).

I loved her response: “You might want to talk about that before we start the read-along. My friends and I know that we struggle with perfectionism, but we don’t claim shame.”

Claiming shame. I love that.

I just wrote a definition of perfectionism for an article. I know it sounds weird, but writing and reading this definition has helped me so much in my own life (as a struggling perfectionist and a mom).

Here’s what I have:

“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: “If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”

Perfectionism is defeating and self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.

Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough so rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.

Feeling shamed, judged, and blamed (and the fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience. Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame: ‘It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.’

To overcome perfectionism we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to the universal experiences of shame, judgment, and blame; develop shame resilience; and practice self-compassion.

When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections. It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts and strengthen our most meaningful connections.” B. Brown (2009).

This an on-going struggle for me. A daily practice – like authenticity. Having words wrapped around the feelings is always helpful to me (in case you didn’t notice).

This definition also helps me get my head around the vast differences between perfectionism and healthy striving (when you’re striving to be better for yourself and for positive reasons, not to avoid shame, blame, and judgment). It also explains why perfectionism is the enemy of creative work and any other type of risk-taking.

We’ll talk more about this during the read-along, but I’d love to hear your thoughts now.  Ideas? Suggestions?


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  13. Heather

    My mother once said, “you don’t just try to be better, you have to be the best.” I never linked that to perfect. In meditation, I saw the self criticism of my practice. I saw the expectation to do it “right.” For me there is only “perfect” or not right. I am such a hard ass on myself and everyone around me. Why? Not to improve, to be validated. Thank you for clearing up how this relates to shame. And all the pain I experience.

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