Working through Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a defense mechanism many anxious people tend to struggle with. Many of out perfectionist clients struggle with the negative thoughts that they are am not good enough unless they do everything 100% right 100&% of the time. Perfectionists tend to down play their accomplishments, have difficulty with minor changes in their desired outcome and struggle with constantly not living up to expectations, usually expectations that are not always very realistic in nature.

Where does perfectionism come from?

Perfectionism is rooted in shame. Perfectionism is driven by  “what people think of you”, versus “staying true to yourself”, or ignoring the opinions of others. Research shows that shame is highly associated with perfectionism, depression, anxiety, addiction, aggression and much more.  Perfectionism is often a cover for feelings of shame, stemming from the belief that what we do – or fail to do – is a direct reflection of who we are. Shame is a reaction that at times occurs when we interpret our actions, our standing, our very selves in the context of what is expected by friends, family and society at large. If we do not meet the expectations posed on us by others we can begin to blame ourselves and internalize that shame. When we don’t meet those expectations we feel anxious, vulnerable, and judged as “different”. This results in negative self-talk like: “I’m stupid,” “I’m unworthy,” or “I’m unlovable.” And if we believe these to be true, then surely other people will judge us just as harshly as we judge ourselves.

In order to combat this feeling of shame, we develop ways to subdue it, or mask it. Perfectionism is one such method; by shielding our imperfections and our insecurities from ourselves as well as those who might look down on us, we can keep the shame hidden. By achieving impossible standards, producing exceptional work, saying the most intelligent phrases, or by having an immaculate, beautiful home and/or personal appearance, we push away any opportunities for shame.   We eliminate the chance for vulnerability or connection, thus lessening the opportunity for scrutiny or judgment. We are isolated.

How Do we Begin to Combat the Shame?

One essential process is that a person must talk about the shame to someone they can trust, like a therapist, so that they can experience safe vulnerability. The three essential steps in healing are:

  1. Understanding the exact nature of such shame by taking ownership of the problem behavior.
  2. Learning shame-resilience.
  3. Self-compassion. 
  4. Embrace imperfection.
Step 1 Take Ownership:

The first step is to allow yourself to develop a relationship with a trusted therapist so you can allow yourself to truly be vulnerable and explore how shame is feeding your perfectionism. You could try a family member or trusted friend, but for many people, finding and speaking with a person bound to hold all your secrets and problem by confidentiality is the first step in truly putting your issues on the table. 

Step 2 Shame-Resilience:

How does one become shame resilient? Well you start by identifying you shame triggers- what exactly is causing you to feel shameful? What are the beliefs about yourself and the world that are relating to this? 

Step 3 Self-Compassion:

Self-compassion is essential in the healing process of working through shame.  Learning to speak about yourself in reaction to it, as if you were speaking to someone you care about- you know without all the labeling and name-calling. Your therapist will be there to help you work through it and empathize with what you are feeling and experiencing. 

Step 4 Embrace Imperfection:

Embracing imperfection is allowing yourself to just be, rather than expecting to be something better, someone who fits in. It is opening up to being vulnerable, first with yourself as you build up resiliency, then with others while you practice loving yourself despite how you are perceived. You can do this in small steps, selecting a small stone in your façade that will not reveal you to the world just yet but willallow you to practice having compassion for yourself. Maybe you let the dishes pile up for a few more hours than usual, wear mismatched socks, or let yourself be 5 minutes late to a social engagement. These small practices give you the chance to become enamored with your quirks and imperfections, using them as positive, somewhat silly, intentional reflections of your true self. 

As always, if you would need help working through your struggles, our office is here to help. Please call us at 631-503-1539 to set up your first appointment and discuss how we can help you live a life you are proud of.

Stay Shining,

Jamie Vollmoeller, LCSW