What is Perfectionism?
“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.” -Brene Brown
The first time I heard about the term perfectionism was when I watched a Brene Brown shame video that a colleague frequently used in her group therapy. I was co-leading the group with her that day and as I was watching along with our clients, it’s like a lightbulb went off in my head and I was learning right along with them at that moment. I’m sitting there saying to myself “so this is what I’ve been experiencing my whole life, no it can’t be.” It made me reflect on how being the oldest, responsible child with straight A’s who also belonged to 23789 school clubs, events, and sports (slight exaggeration on the exact numbering) throughout my entire life, maybe just maybe was trying to hide something.
The idea of perfectionism comes from the emotion of shame; you see together they are like a toxic, unhealthy relationship where they can’t exist without one another. In order for us to struggle and strive to be perfect, we must feel that we are a bad person at the core somewhere deep inside and that’s where shame comes in. Shame from an evolutionary standpoint is an emotion that’s meant to keep us connected with a social group. Think caveman! If thousands of years ago we had done something “bad,” there would be this urge to hide it in order to remain with our tribe. Tribe=survival. Fast forward to current times, and there are different things that prompt shame for people; things that are meant to be normalized, such as not having a clean house, not having flawless skin, or even admitting to a client that you aren’t sure how to answer their question as a professional. This is where perfectionism swoops in and acts like this (FAKE) shield trying to protect us from feeling hurt. To quote Brene (again), “When perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver.” So all the while what perfectionism does is hold us back from being who we are and living a free life.
So how do you know if you would fall into the category of being a perfectionist?
Here are a few signs to be mindful of:
- Setting unattainable expectations for yourself and doing anything possible to meet them. Striving to be perfect has nothing to do with self-growth and achievement, but more about protecting yourself from being truly seen by others. The expectations assist with preventing others being able to judge us, criticize us, or blame us. Remember—it’s a shield!
- Noticing yourself be preoccupied with what others will think about what you do. Underneath it all, perfectionism is about looking for approval from others. Sometimes this pattern can be established as a child when we are rewarded for achieving at such high expectations and want to please the people around us. People pleasing and perfectionism can also be friends riding in the same car.
Stay tuned, I will be writing a series on perfectionism with articles containing specific behavioral identifiers, the cycle of perfectionism, and how we can start to remedy this promoted pattern in our society.
Resource: The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown