Hot off the shame series, I want to talk about perfectionism. Would you identify yourself as a perfectionist? What does that mean to you? What does it look like? How does it manifest in your life?
For the purpose of this blog, I am going to define perfectionism as a belief that if you do things perfectly and are perfect, you will avoid the pain of shame and others’ judgment. You might recognize perfectionism as one of the shame-shields discussed in shame series II. Perfectionism is not the equivalent to the desire to grow, strive for excellence, become better, or improve. Growth is not the driving force behind perfectionism; shame is.
The Problem with Perfectionism
The problem with perfectionism is that [newsflash] perfection is unattainable. When you are bound to perfectionism as a means of coping with shame, you might find yourself avoiding enjoyable activities because of the fear that you will perform imperfectly and then be subject to the pain of shame. You may find yourself confined to the space of what is comfortable, familiar, or “easy”. Growth and change come from discomfort or trying something new. Feeling “stuck” can be a product of perfectionism keeping you from growth and change.
Shame tells you that you are unlovable and unworthy if you are not perfect → you employ perfectionism to avoid the pain of shame → you avoid anything that includes the risk of you not being perfect → you’re stuck, uninspired, lost
Perfectionism might be getting in the way of you pursuing big dreams or new opportunities. A new opportunity or dream presents the risk of not being perfect (of course, you haven’t done it before! How can you be perfect at something that you have never done?!). Maybe you feel you are missing out on fulfilling your purpose or calling because of perfectionism.
If you are struggling with perfectionism, you may also find that it is difficult to get close to other people. Perfectionism drives you to share only your “perfect self”; it drives you to hide any insecurities or vulnerabilities. Anytime you are unable to be your full self with another, there will be a felt sense of distance. Perfectionism prevents the empathic connection that is so powerful in overcoming shame; it prevents you from experiencing the acceptance and love of others for your whole self.
How I Approach Perfectionism
Since perfectionism is a response to shame, my work with clients struggling with perfectionism goes back to shame. We explore what you may have learned and internalized about perfection and imperfection; what shame looks like in your life; what it might look like to respond to shame with empathic connection rather than perfectionism.
You can practice increased self-awareness and compassion in response to shame and perfectionism.
1. Notice when shame and perfectionism are at work. Are you avoiding something or someone because of a fear that you will not be perfect and will then be scrutinized by others?
2. Using some cognitive exercises, ask yourself what the worst case scenario might be. If you pursue something despite the probability that you will not be perfect, what might happen? Is there evidence to support that? Is there a more likely scenario? What are potential benefits to this pursuit?
3. Share your struggle and shame with a trusted person.
To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.
Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Valencia, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.