Letting Go of Perfectionism

Lets talk about shame. The word shame has a lot of stigma tied to it and we prefer not to talk about in our culture. Yet we are all impacted by it.  Shame is the feeling we have when we believe that we are flawed or inadequate. It is such an awful feeling that we push it down and are often unaware of it but yet it shows up in our lives in the form of perfectionism, a self critical voice, and through our feelings of fear and defensiveness. It shows up in the belief that if we can be perfect and do everything perfectly, we will never feel inadequate and can never be criticized. For women, the number one thing that triggers feelings of shame is appearance and body image. Other shame triggers might be infertility, motherhood, or productivity.  We believe that we need to look perfect, eat perfectly, be the perfect mother, and that to be the perfect woman means to be fertile. Of course these are all beliefs perpetuated in our culture and which we’ve internalized.

For many of us, perfectionism has became a coping strategy and a way to deal with our shame and beliefs that we are not enough.  Often pursuing perfectionism is a way of being that allowed us to receive approval from loved ones or caregivers, or the larger culture and thus has served us in some way.  Rather than focusing on being our best selves or living our lives in the most full way possible, perfectionism keeps up believing that if we can be perfect, we wont be criticized or judged. The irony of course is that we can never be perfect and every time we believe that we are less than perfect we actually end up criticizing and blaming ourselves. Perfectionism ends up taking up large amounts of our time and energy as we invest more and more trying to perfect ourselves (think of all of the time and money spent on dieting, weight loss etc.). Although it is difficult to embrace for many of us,  imperfection is part of the human experience. Embracing our imperfection is part of what makes us human and allowing for imperfection brings us so much freedom in our lives.

Shame grows and takes over our lives when it is left unnamed but yet it is often difficult to recognize because we’ve become so accustomed to feeling shame that it actually feels like a part of ourselves. When you experience a shame trigger (ie: you feel angry or sad when: you look at yourself in the mirror, when you believe that you are a bad mom or when you believe that you have failed as a woman when it seems like every other woman can conceive easier than you) try to cultivate mindfulness to notice what is happening in your body. Is your heart racing? What is your breathing like? What sensations do you feel in the body? This will bring you into the present moment instead of reacting to a trigger.  Notice the narrative and thoughts that you are telling yourself. Try to see if you can notice them as just thoughts rather than truths. Try to offer yourself self-compassion and feelings of warmth, kindness, and understanding rather than criticizing yourself. In addition to offering yourself self-compassion, see if there is something that you can do to take care of yourself in this moment. Perhaps engaging in self care or making a plan to engage in self care. Practice naming what your shame triggers and how they show up in your life: speak about them to others or journal for yourself. These are ways of acting in opposition to the fear of inadequacy and feelings of worthlessness.

Recognizing shame triggers and acting in a way that is compassionate and/ ore speaking or writing is most likely a very different way to deal with shame than you have before. It may take a lot of practice to learn these skills as your reactions to shame are well ingrained and part of a familiar pattern. But each time you act differently you are taking steps towards creating a new pattern, a new neural pathway in your brain and over time this pathway can become your default.


Lorilee Keller