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June 20, 2024

Why Perfectionism is really just Deep Shame Disguised.

 

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“I’m a perfectionist.”

As someone who used to drop this line quite frequently in the past, I now see perfectionism differently.

Many people believe perfectionism to be a personality trait they are born with. I do not see perfectionism as a personality trait but rather as a brilliant survival mechanism and protection response to mask a painful emotion: shame.

When you think about it, perfectionism is actually a really great way to run away from the agony of shame. Perfectionism tells us we always need to do more, go that extra mile to feel worthy. Ironically, perfectionism is not even about trying to be perfect. It’s about avoiding all the feelings that make up the need to be “perfect.”

In fact, Brené Brown has spoken extensively on this topic: “Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.”

Perfectionism can show up in different ways in people. For some, it shows up as excessive cleanness and organization, for some it shows up in work addiction (in younger ages it tends to show up as high achieving in school to an obsessive point). For some, it manifests in obsession with looks and physique. No matter how they look, it is never enough. They need to be more beautiful or more fit. Sometimes it shows up in all of these at once. In general, perfectionists are highly critical of themselves and have a harsh rigid inner voice.

Perfectionism requires us to wear a mask, a façade to hide away the parts of us that don’t feel good enough. Keeping up that mask, however, is absolutely exhausting. It is not uncommon for people with perfectionist traits to have a high level of anxiety. In fact, it’s a perfect breeding ground for nervous system dysregulation.

Perfectionism can have us thinking thoughts like:

“I need to do everything right.”
“I cannot make mistakes.”

“I need to look perfect.”
“I need everybody to like me and see me as perfect.”

“If I am not perfect, I cannot be loved.”

“No one can find out I’m not okay.”

“I’m lazy and weak.”

“I always need to be on the go.”

“I need to be the best; I need to go that extra mile.”

 “I cannot be judged by anyone. It is too painful.”

With perfectionism, making even the smallest of mistakes can bring up humongous amounts of shame, and, of course, self-criticism. Having unrealistic expectations of the self and not being able to fulfil them brings up even more pain. Because the thing about perfectionism is that we can never win! Believing that being a perfectionist will make us perfect is the biggest illusion in itself.

I believe the more we need to feel like we need to do more, act more, and go the extra mile, the “less” we feel inside. That’s how I see it. And shame makes us feel as though we are “less,” unworthy, wrong, bad, dirty, guilty.

Many perfectionists were shamed by their parents and caregivers as children. This tends to be where the survival mechanism begins. When shame is not healed, it is passed down, generation to generation.

Why is it so difficult to let go of perfectionism?

If it were easy to break free from perfectionism, everyone would consciously decide to do it and bam—the issue would be fixed. The reason it is so hard to let go of this survival mechanism is that shame is an incredibly difficult emotion to feel. We cannot think our way out of perfectionism (aka shame) we need to feel our way out of it—by going into the things that bring us shame and make us feel unworthy. We need to get right to the root of the problem, and the root resides deep within the human psyche.

This is why most people do not ever heal from perfectionism. It can feel too scary to “go there.” There is the fear of the unknown, the fear of what is lurking underneath. Even greater, there is the question of “Who am I going to be without my perfectionist traits?” This alone is enough to make our egos spiral into sheer terror. We tend to create identities out of mechanisms that do not serve our general well-being. Unfortunately, they can feel extremely comfortable.

Being brave enough to let go of perfectionism.

As hard as it may feel, letting go of perfectionism is in my opinion essential to bringing more joy and adventure into our lives. Life is not supposed to be so rigid, rule-based, serious, controlled! Perfectionism steals away the zest of living! The authenticity of it. The playfulness of it.

It is extremely hard to grow as a person if we are stuck with perfectionist traits. We are less likely to take on constructive criticism (we become extremely defensive and deflect it). We are less open-minded. We don’t let things flow. We can put masks up in relationships, which become really hard to maintain. Perfectionism can feel a bit like a prison of shoulds, cants, and wonts.

It takes guts, but I hope we can all find the courage within us to bring out the free, raw, wild, unfiltered, imperfect but wonderful humanness that makes up the essence of our being.

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