01 Aug Perfectionism: A Heavy Shield
Perfectionism: A Heavy Shield
Laura James, LPC-S
Perfectionism: An endless hamster wheel we get trapped in that tells us whatever we are doing or being is never good enough. It may feel like it pushes us to our full potential and we may even receive accolades when our perfectionistic self keeps pushing us further and further. Internally though we are on edge, not feeling good enough and isolated in our struggle. Perfectionism is difficult on the mind and body and keeps us in a constant state of anxiety or depression. In graduate school I began to think of perfectionism differently when a professor said “perfectionism is directly related to shame.” Our desire to be perfect is innately related to our fear of being seen by others. Shame makes us fear that people will see our “true selves” and reject us. To protect ourselves we use perfectionism because we believe if others perceive us as perfect, they will accept us.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
– Brene Brown
The question is, how do we put down the shield if we have been carrying it around for so long? It is not easy and there will be bumps and bruises, but there is beauty in embracing imperfection. If you are ready to put down that twenty-ton shield, here are a few tools that have helped me along the way!
Understand Your Desire to be Perfect
Know thyself! Get acquainted with your perfectionistic self. Below is a graph that illustrates the thinking pattern of perfectionism. Does it look familiar? Where does this pattern show up in your life? Perfectionism is usually something we learned from our life experience and at some point, may have seemed the only way to protect yourself. When we are lugging it around though it starts to create big problems. Can you imagine if a first responder wore all his gear 24/7? It would be heavy, exhausting, and not very efficient in the long run. If perfectionism is such a chore why do we cling to it? That answer will be different for each one of us. It may be helpful to go through the “When, Where, How, Why, and Who” questions to get to know this part of yourself better. Ask yourself when this part of you showed up? What is this part of you trying to protect? Keep digging and be curious. Be compassionate to yourself and help develop an understanding of why it is so difficult for you to embrace your imperfections.
Perfectionism in Perspective Workbook
(Centre for Clinical Interventions)
Strike a Balance
Perfectionism makes us see the world in black and white, creating the illusion that we must either do something perfectly or not try at all. We create rigid rules and unrelenting high standards for ourselves and end up forgoing most of our own needs in our pursuit of doing it perfectly. If we cannot accomplish these standards, we may feel so frustrated that we swing to the opposite side and become paralyzed, unable to move forward because our intense fear of failure. Notice your thoughts when you are feeling anxious or depressed. What are you telling yourself? If you notice thoughts that seem to fall into this pattern start to challenge those with more flexible thoughts like “if I try this and don’t succeed, I can always try something else or start again” or “if I relax for a few hours it may help me be more efficient.”
Seeing the world in black and white paralyzes
us because it creates the illusion that we must
either do something perfectly or not try at all.
Create a Mantra
My mantra is “better done than perfect.” When I have reread an email for the millionth time and just can’t hit send because I’m afraid that I haven’t said something correctly or am unable to finish a blog post because I just can’t seem to get the wording right this mantra acts as my reset button and helps jolt me out of my perfectionism paralysis. Your mantra may be different, but it is a tool to help retrain your brain to not get stuck in the perfectionism spirals. If we can help develop new pathways in our brain over time, we become less controlled by our perfectionistic thinking.
There is probably an area of your life that perfectionism has the tightest grip. You hold yourself to unreasonable standards and feel as though you are never enough. Anytime you try to regain balance that part of you rears up and says that if you give an inch you will lose all control and become a complete failure (or tells you why try when you are likely to fail). This may be around self-image, parenting, relationships, jobs, or any other aspect of our life we are hoping to be perceived as good enough. In my life this is around my work. Hard work and perfectionism do this dance in my head and seem to entangle me in a way that trips me up over and over again. After examining my own measuring stick about how much work is enough work, I have figured out that the standards I set for myself are unrealistic and often create the perfectionism loop for me. Finding trusted people who can create accountability in this area of my life has helped me. These people can help pull you out of that perfectionism loop when it is spinning too fast for you to get a hold of on your own. In the words of Jane Howard – “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”