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Perfectionism & Shame: Longtime Bedfellows

By Tricia Andor, Licensed Professional Counselor

The videos in last week’s post, The Impact of Shame, highlighted some of Dr. Brene’ Brown’s incredible research on shame. Today’s post focuses on perfectionism, shame’s not-so-strange-bedfellow.

Perfectionism is an odd duck in U.S. culture. It’s one of the few faults that people will readily admit to (ever hear anyone casually admit to having jealous, gossipy, or manipulative faults?), to the point that interviewing experts now advise interviewees to refrain from answering the “What’s your biggest flaw” question with the “perfectionism” response. It’s been so overused for so long.

But the fact that it’s been so overdone does reveal something about our regard for perfectionism. We like high standards, and we like achieving them. We like what it says about our character and abilities. And indeed, there is an adaptive type of perfectionism. It’s the kind that, while aiming to achieve high standards, doesn’t make a person collapse, feel like a complete failure, or give up on the task when not deemed the best at it. The adaptive kind of perfectionism,“is O.K. being O.K. at some things” says Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake.

But those with the maladaptive type of perfectionism know all too well the flip side of the striving, striving, striving for perfection. All or nothing thinking – “if I can’t do it the best, why do it at all?” Identity crises when falling short of perfect. Fear of being judged and losing the respect of and connection with friends, family, or colleagues when not attaining perfection. And then there’s the dreaded procrastination that so often accompanies the maladaptive perfectionism.

Dr. Brown elaborates upon her findings with the perfectionism-shame relationship – and she’s talking about the maladaptive type of perfectionism – noting that

The areas in which you struggle with perfectionism are probably the areas in which you probably have deep shame issues.

Perfectionism is the cover for the the fear that “if people see what’s really happening, I won’t be worthy of connection & acceptance.” It’s the idea that “if I’m perfect, or do [something] perfectly, then I will be accepted and loved.”

Question: What are the areas in which you find yourself striving for perfection?

Making your family look perfect? Wanting people to see your marriage in a certain way? Masking vulnerability, uncertainty, and insecurity? Striving for the perfect body or physical appearance? Needing your housework to be perfect? Expecting only the absolute highest quality of work every time, all the time, on the job? Perfectionism in your school projects? Completing hobbies – scrapbooking, writing, woodworking, coaching, volunteering – with the expectation a flawless execution?

Identifying areas in which you find yourself perfectionistic provides a window to a helpful question: If I wasn’t able to perform perfectly in this area of my life, what do I fear would happen? If my limitations or flaws were exposed, what would that say about me? Do I experience shame in this perfectionistic area of my life?

For more about Brene’ Brown and her research on shame and perfectionism: