Perfectionism is a defense mechanism many anxious people tend to struggle with. Many of our perfectionist clients struggle with the negative thoughts that they are 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

In our world today, perfectionism is viewed as positive and fear of failure is frowned upon. Perfectionism is something people often consider more of a strength than a weakness. That constant desire for perfection can become unhealthy and irrational. Longing for a fulfilling life, lacking self-confidence, all-or-nothing, over-thinking, fear of failure, fear of judgement and what people think, significantly high standards, people pleasing, and craving guidance. Does any of this sound familiar to you? If so, you are far from alone.

As far back as I can remember, I struggled with this compulsive internal desire to be perfect and anything short of that was seen as failure. My perfectionism became intertwined with my sense of self; which is how perfectionist traits can become depleting. As I got older, I viewed my sense of perfectionism as one of my greatest strengths; well, likely because perfectionism is ultimately an illusion and the pursuit of perfection becomes a vicious cycle. Becoming self-aware and changing my mindset of perfection tendencies have been difficult for me and still requires daily effort and practice to increase self-compassion and decrease self-criticism.

I have come to realize that at the same time as we set unreasonable standards for ourselves, social media reinforces unrealistic standards and magnifies the fear of failure. With social media being a large part of our lives and our culture, it is often difficult to avoid. But it is possible to see beyond the illusion of being perfect and begin to change your mind set to become the best version of yourself that you can be. We ultimately get in our own way of living a fulfilling life.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is necessary to see beyond the illusion and become your best self.  Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?” It’s about creating an environment where imperfection isn’t just accepted but celebrated, because it means we’re human. Changing how you think about yourself is a work in progress. Allowing imperfection to happen and accepting it relieves that extra weight you have been carrying with you. Celebrate imperfections and get out of your own way!

Angela Nigro

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