Do you have perfectionist tendencies? Most of us raised and educated in this culture do. Parents want exemplary children; schools want A students; employers demand superhuman employees; religions tell us we are sinners needing redemption from our imperfect state.
We have also been 'imprinted' with the inner archetypes/template of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, who were cast from paradise for the sins of wanting to learn and wanting to live. Perfection was established in the opening verses of the book of Genesis as the original and desired state for humans. It would be hard not to have perfectionist tendencies given that basis for understanding the human condition.
As well, we are all bombarded with advertising images that depict unrealistic, usually unattainable ideals which keep us consuming in an effort to measure up. Since we all struggle with longings for perfection to some degree, I would like to share a few observations I have made over the years about this quest for perfection. Perfectionism is a merciless task master if we remain unaware of the reasons for its presence.
Have you noticed how some of us torture not only ourselves with demands for perfection, but all those around us? This is often because we do not want their imperfect state or behaviours to reflect badly on us and perhaps point to our own imperfections. Do people ever describe you as demanding, exacting, controlling? This is due to a need for perfection extending beyond yourself to your environment and associates. Perfectionists are not easy people to live with or work with. "But I just have high standards - I simply pursue excellence - I just want the best for us", are phrases often heard from perfectionists. While those statements may hold some truth, they are usually not the real motive driving the perfectionist.
Perfectionism can be an unrelenting inner tyrant. It is an obsession driven by fear ... fear of exposure. Exposure of what, you ask? Exposure of our belief in our fundamental inadequacy or unworthiness. Harbouring an erroneous and often unconscious belief about our inadequacy, we strive ever and ever harder to create perfection in and around us.
One of the major sources of nagging, inner anxiety is our sense of our own imperfection, and/or the perceived imperfections in our surroundings. To avoid experiencing the discomfort of anxiety we try to prove our worth by doing everything perfectly. This is an impossible task and when we do not meet our arbitrary standards of perfection, we experience disappointment, humiliation, guilt and even shame. (Guilt is generally about doing things wrong, while shame is about feelings of being worthless or 'wrong' at core, as a person.)
Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary on the web describes per·fec·tion·ism as follows:
* a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable, especially...
* the setting of unrealistically demanding goals, accompanied by...
* a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness
* a tendency to set rigid high standards of personal performance
Do any of the above definitions describe you?
It has been my experience that most people who demand perfection of themselves and those around them are really operating from a core of shame or worthlessness. They are shame-based. When we feel insufficient, unworthy, not good enough ... we feel shame ... ashamed. Shame feels intolerable, so to cope with feelings of shame we strive for perfection. We imagine that if we can demonstrate our superior abilities at any number of tasks surely no one will ever suspect our fundamental lack of worth.
We move back and forth along a continuum striving to be perfect.....often failing....feeling disappointment.....then experiencing shame.....leading us to again, strive to be 'perfect'.
We can only tolerate the shame for short periods of time before we slump into depression and, if we can muster the strength, we make an effort to move out of the shame by trying to again establish perfection in some area of our life: having the perfect home, raising the perfect children, developing the perfect reputation, driving the perfect car, producing the most perfect results in our work, etc. etc. You know best how your perfectionist leanings manifest in your life. The pattern shows up again and again as:
.....Perfectionism.....Disappointment, when we cannot attain it, resulting in.....Shame.....
.....Shame.....producing anxiety, resulting in more attempts at.....Perfection.....on and on....
Thus we find ourselves caught in a terrible dynamic, moving between these two taxing extremes of perfectionism and shame. The truth is humans are imperfect and ARE NOT unworthy or shameful because of this imperfection. This is the human condition and we must come to terms with it, accept it, rather than being shamed by it.
Merriam-Webster defines a·shamed as follows:
* feeling shame; distressed or embarrassed by feelings of guilt, foolishness, or disgrace
* unwilling or restrained because of fear of shame, ridicule, or disapproval
It is sometimes difficult to recognize the shame we carry for we bury it deep inside. No one wants to feel shame. It can still be driving our behaviours, even if we are unaware of its presence.
Perfectionism and shame make us live one step removed from our true self. If we consider our self inadequate or unworthy, we build a false self. We fool ourselves into thinking that a self devoid of value will be kept hidden by our demonstrations of perfection. And yet, the false image of perfection we construct is what is really untrue. This false 'perfect' self is not the real you, not the real me. The real you is good - good enough - acceptable. We may occasionally do unacceptable things (which we need to redress), but it does NOT mean that we are inherently unacceptable.
Perfectionism and shame make us overly sensitive, overly attuned to, and overly intolerant of the flaws, weaknesses, failings of ourselves and others. Always measuring and evaluating everything for its imperfections, we remove ourselves from the moment, from authentic interactions, from truth. When we evaluate something as not being up to our standards we get busy trying to exert the control needed to erase the imperfections. If controlling measures do not work, we may then go into a sort of paralysis and/or hiding to avoid exposing ourselves as unworthy or from having to deal with the imperfections of those around us. There are untold painful consequences that result from the burden of perfectionism.
* you like to do things well
* you like to be thorough
* you have high standards
* you do the best you can with family, friends and colleagues
* you have probably developed some valuable competencies
Is there anything good to be found in shame?
* you recognize you are merely good, not god
* you see you are not special or superior
What do you get when you take the good things out of perfectionism and shame and pull them up to a higher level of operation in consciousness, as illustrated in the above diagram?
* YOU GET THE BEAUTIFUL, FREEING QUALITY OF DIGNITY!(dignity: early 13c., from O.Fr. dignete , from L. dignitatem (nom. dignitas ) "worthiness," from dignus "worth (n.), worthy, proper, fitting" from PIE *dek-no- , from base *dek- "to take, accept" . . . )
As you can see dignity comes from the root word 'worth' (the opposite of shame). In modern French the word digne still means worthy or having worth. Isn't it preferable to negotiate life feeling our basic, human dignity rather than struggling against an erroneous sense of worthlessness? Isn't it preferable to walk through life with our head held high regardless of our problems or limitations, rather than in a desperate search for perfection?
* When we have dignity we recognize our worth just because we exist.
* When we are dignified we know that even with our problems and limitations we still have value and worth because we are part of the human family.
* When we have dignity we do not run around trying to prove that we are superior, special or perfect.
* When we have dignity we do not experience shame because we are flawed or fail at something. We recognize our limitations and our abilities, and get to work righting our wrongdoings, where we can.
* When we are dignified we know we have intrinsic human worth regardless of our frailties and shortcomings.
* DIGNITY ACCEPTS, ALLOWS AND APPRECIATES HUMANS AS THEY ARE, BECAUSE THEY ARE, including one's self.
So how can one escape the dual clutches of perfectionism and shame and move to a dignified stance toward life?
When you catch yourself demanding perfection of self and others (or at the other end of the dynamic, feeling shame) you can become curious and ask yourself the following questions:
* How would I view this situation differently if I remembered my intrinsic worth and acted from a place of dignity?
* What erroneous assumptions am I making about needing to prove or improve myself, or about a need to hide my imperfections?
* What would it be like if I could swap my need for control for curiosity about my need for perfection and control?
* If I was being aware, skillful, compassionate and curious, would I demand perfection of others?
* How would my life be different if I released the need to prove I am special, superior, the best at at whatever I do?
* Can I relax into a felt sense of being good enough, a sense of my inherent all-rightness, regardless of how I may or may not measure up to society's arbitrary, cruel, consumer-driven standards and celebrity worship?
* Could I remember that I am made up of many parts and the perfectionist and shame-full parts are not the real me? When I remember this could I take a deep, cleansing breath and shift to a more centered, dignified sense of self?
* What would my life look like if I relaxed my perfectionist tendencies?
* What would my life look like if I accepted myself as good enough and worthy?
It would certainly look and feel more dignified.
This post is in no way a comprehensive look at perfectionism and its driving impulse of shame. We have only touched on an often overlooked aspect of perfectionism - the fundamental shame at its core. I hope it provides a jumping-off point for you to examine any perfectionist impulses and to work at developing ever deeper levels of self-acceptance and dignity. I am happy to answer any questions you might have about this post.
(If you want to learn more about how to manage or eliminate perfectionist tendencies, you need only do a search using the word, 'perfectionism' at Amazon.com and you will find a range of publications from which to choose. To discover books that have a deeper level of content than the typical self-help book, click on the sidebar at Amazon, selecting Medical .... , then Psychology .... , then perfectionism. Trust yourself to know where YOU need to start.)