Monday, January 3, 2011

let's talk about perfectionism

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.

It is unrealistic to imagine that we can instantly eradicate this movement between perfection and shame.  Change begins with awareness and there are little steps we can take to begin to release perfectionist patterns.  One thing we can do is follow the suggestions of Roberto Assagioli, M.D.  (a psychiatrist who was a contemporary of Freud and Jung).  Assagioli represents inner
unskillful dynamics and the way to move beyond them in the form of a triangle.  At the base of the triangle is the negative, alternating dynamic.  In this case, the  perfection....shame dynamic.  We can remain trapped going back and forth between the two if we don't find a way out.  Assagioli suggests we  take the good things out of  the negative qualities of perfectionism and out of shame and raise them to a higher level of operation at the apex of the triangle  -  a more aware, skillful level of consciousness.  (See my  imperfect diagram to illustrate Assagioli's point.)

What would this mean?  It would mean teasing out what is good in both of these negative impulses and bringing them together into a more skillful way of being.

What good can be found in 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 have limits
* 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?


(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. 


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 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.) 


  1. Good post, Bonnie, thanks for the very clear outline of how perfectionism, shame, and dignity can illuminate each other. My perfectionistic streak faded a lot when I learned to tell myself, "Only God is perfect." (Not that I believe in God, exactly, but you get the idea.) Now I wonder, is God shame-shackled, or does s/he get to be perfect for real?

  2. Dear Bonnie,
    Thank you so much for a very useful post where I came across Roberto Assagioli. But...I do not feel like reading him or others at all--because I'm so happy with what I am and what/who I will be. (*Actually, I expected you might talk of "Karen Horney," or “Carl Rogers” but you did not.)

    Several years ago, I read through lots of psychology stuff at uni. It was really a turning point for me and threw away perfectionism (of course, it took time). "You're liberated," a psychology lecturer finally said and suggested Yalom's books for our good bye (I found you like his book, too:)). Today, I do not need them all. In my eyes, “Life is beautiful and people are lovely.” In my mental lexicon, a third plural noun has gone and first plural nouns remain, “we, us”! I’m very happy to know I’m one of same humans.

    However, Bonnie, we know it well that not easy for individuals to get rid of perfectionism from a socioeconomic aspect in our competitive societies and cultures. Your post is so lovely, but also, please assist people to find a compromised ground between harsh reality and a peace of mind/heart.

    Lastly, some people may wonder if it is true or not. True. When a person accepts who s/he is, s/he begins to change with dignity and moves towards dignity, as if s/he steps out of darkness and walks to light. In my observation, liberated people want to share joy with others and make others happy, too. So, I always say others “Be what you are.”
    Pardon a lengthy comment. Thank you for a precious time.

    Kind regards, Sadami
    (*If this is too long, you do not need to upload it.)

  3. And so... there I am... at the bottom of this post, asking myself these questions now. Whew. It's been an enlightening time for me these past few months. I am now only excited at the prospects of not holding on so tight and learning to love me and others for who we CAN be, not what makes most sense to ME. Thank you so much for this post Bonnie.

  4. i celebrate my failings as hidden intentions! steven

  5. BONNIE-

    Excellent post - clear and concise. As I read it re-enforced that I am not a perfecionist at all nor do I hold anyone else to perfections. i have long since realized that being right is not all its cracked up to be and most times I have no need to be right, rather I am humbly secure in my choices. I like the word dignity, in fact, I often say, that when we speak to each other we need to maintain our dignity and preserve the dignity of the person to whom we are speaking. The word integrity fits well too :-) Great post.
    Love to you

  6. Perfectionism/shame/dignity...This is a most interesting essay with much to think about. I am not sure that the drive for perfection is always shame based. Could perfection come from a desire to be productively competent and vital?

  7. A perfectionist is the most difficult person to deal with indeed. And one who has the most difficulty seeing perfectionism as a challenge for others to live with. It is almost a "faith" a "religion" where if one strays from his perfectionism , he falls into nothingness...perfectionism is a coping "skill" and becomes honed well because usually their work is astonishing and the kudos for that end buoy up the whole drive. I know this one well, I married it- It is very confusing most of the time.

  8. Dan: Illuminate is a good descriptor Dan. I know your last comment is a humorous one - but I think it shows how so much of society's concept of God is a projected one - and poor God ends up seeming way toooooo human!

  9. steven: It is freeing to be able to categorize our failings as something other than shameful, isn't it?

  10. Gail: Dignity and integrity - nothing to add. :-)

  11. Paul C: Thank you. I agree that very few things are ever 'always' or 'never'. Couldn't the desire to be productive, competent, vital - stand alone? I think I mention in the post that perfectionists formulate their perfectionism into positive terms to justify it - and perfectionists surely bristle at having the term shame applied to themselves. Also, in the post I do mention the positive components of a perfectionist drive - one being that we develop fine competencies and have high standards.

    I guess one way for a perfectionist to tell if that is what they are, is to notice how they feel when, for whatever reason, they cannot measure up to their usual rigid standards.

    You make me think, too, that we should be judicious in how we apply this term. People with high levels of talent and competence are not necessarily perfectionists.

    Dropping the rigidity, control, judgments of perfectionism does not mean we have to throw vitality, competence, productivity or excellence out the window.

  12. Linda Sue: You describe it so well. Most of our obsessions are coping mechanisms to deal with our fears and anxieties. And it does terrify perfectionists to try to imagine losing this crutch. You are bang on when you compare to them feeling as if they are falling into 'nothingness'. It is also true that they receive much positive feedback which reinforces the obsession. Thanks for making these points!

  13. Sadami: Thank you so much for all the great points you make. There is much left out of my post - it's current length is probably off-putting for some readers. I count on fine thinkers like yourself to bring up points I left out. Carl Rogers certainly laid the groundwork for unconditional acceptance of self. It seems to be very hard for many of us to accept ourselves unconditionally - warts, errors, limitations and all.

    Oh, yes - I love Yalom - a giant in the field of existential psychology.

  14. Jayne: You are welcome. The work is in loving and accepting yourself as you ARE right now - not what you CAN be. Loving what is ... is a phrase we can apply to self as well as our world.

    Here's an affirmation you could adapt to suit yourself: With all my limitations and problems (including perfectionism) I profoundly love and accept myself. If you are into acupressure as applied to emotions you can rub an acupunture point as you say this. It is found in the upper quandrant of your chest, over your heart. Probe gently with your fingers until you find a sore spot - we ALL have this sore spot. Rub it in a clockwise direction as you use the above affirmation adapted to your particular challenge. I know this seems strange, but anecdotal evidence shows it works - it is supposed to enhance the flow of block energy. I should do a post on this!

  15. really i am not...not that i settle for...i shoot for excellence, which i dont think is perfection...but also try to blend in some realism...

  16. Brian: I don't think striving for excellence qualifies as perfectionism either. There is a rigidity and a level of desperation that seems to accompany perfectionism. I'm all for competence and excellence!

  17. And the sad part of all this is the fact that perfectionists are put up as examplars, by everyone, especially bosses.
    Great post, Bonnie.

  18. Bonnie, these posts are just so powerful and fraught with such useful tidbits. As a somewhat reformed perfectionist, I can say that having kids was my undoing or my saving grace as I now refer to it. Dr. Phil actually gave me the perspective I needed to see that if nothing else at some point I would physically burn out from trying to be so "super" perfect as a mom at home with her kids. I wanted the clean house, the perfect meals, the cutest and best behaved kids, but I was killing myself in the process and so unhappy...

    But I didn't see the "shame" at the base like you've laid out and Aha, I see that too now. Thanks for illuminating that for me- I hear that voice of shame even now in my head- so true! Just that awareness will help me pause and take notice. Thank you!

  19. rosaria: Isn't that true. They are often put on a pedestal. The psychic, emotional and physical 'fuel' required, however, to maintain the illusion of perfection is huge! I

  20. Vicky: So nice to hear that I am not the only reformed (reforming!) perfectionist here! Awareness has such power - and that is the whole point of these posts. Thank you for getting it!

  21. I hear "controlling" a lot from people.
    I often feel the shame...
    Great post!

  22. Hey Missy: Hope you will find a phrase you can use in moments when you feel shame arise. Something like: I am human, imperfect and that is okay. I am human and good enough. I refuse to continue to shame myself. Just something you use by rote to shove shame aside.

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  24. There are many times when I feel uncomfortable in situations where I am being evaluated. The knowledge that everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect eases the tension. As Brian pointed out my uneasiness is more about a need to do well, to be successful... than a need to be perfect. Do you think people drink excessively because they cannot tolerate the shame of being imperfect?

  25. Linda: That's it - the distinction between wanting to do well, to succeed at our projects, as opposed to the compulsion to do something perfectly. Humans are wired to want to perform tasks well, to succeed, to persist, to enjoy a sense of accomplishment. Perfectionism is a whole other can of worms.

    Yes, the perceived 'shame' of being imperfect raises our anxiety - and most addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviours serve to quell the anxiety - momentarily.

    I feel uncomfortable too when being evaluated - but discomfort is not shame. Few of us ever deserve to carry the weight of shame.

  26. I used to like everything in its place. I was a demanding person. In some ways, it was not a bad trait. I can tell how I came to change...I got so busy I had to let go. It was an inner struggle for some time, but I eventually became much less concerned about the need to be "perfect". I was lucky if my life was halfway "OK"!

    I never connected this to shame. I will need to think about this.

  27. Sandra:

    I think liking everything in its place does not necessarily make one a perfectionist. You can tell by the level of anxiety you felt when things were not in their place. Many, who are not perfectionists, just find they work better when things are in their place. I do not mean to suggest that only perfectionists are orderly. We can enjoy order, organization, etc. without qualifying as a perfectionist.

    The shame piece can be interesting to explore, as long as one does so while being open to the fact it may not apply to them. We need to be open and flexible in our explorations. :-)

  28. I should clarify: I used to NEED everything in its place. And I was not comfortable when things were out of order. Not so anymore! And this is a good thing.

  29. Chasing perfectionism wastes time, kills spirit, freezes action, prevents failures, prevents wisdom, promotes distress, incites anger, stunts growth and prohibites satisfaction. It's a killer. Forget about it.

  30. I wish I had had an understanding of perfectionism when my children were young, Bonnie. Just imagine if we were brought up in the accepting way that you describe - how different we, and the world, would be.

    Although I was not waaay out there on the scale, I certainly had/have a tendency to want control, and it's a good thing to have this insight into the reasons behind such a need. I drink in these posts, Bonnie. So much good information, and so eloquently written.

  31. I am sitting here crying uncontrollably from reading this post. This is sooo me, and reliving the shame for those I have hurt. I need to move through this. If this wasn't a profile of myself, I guess I could just say, Oh Well! LOL

  32. Hi Bonnie, thank you for posting about this subject, I have looked a couple of times through the net to see if I could encounter an article like this. I seem to have a very similar (if not the same problem), my main reason for perfectionism is the fear I will be looked down by my male peers. I say mostly male, because perhaps I sometimes find their domineering attitudes perhaps a little threatening- this goes to say not all my male friends are at all this way. There are just some that make me want to keep a strong and 'perfect' front when confronting. Perhaps this also links in with my slightly feminist views, but I'm beginning to realise it's starting to wear on me. Thank you again for this article, it's helped quite a bit. :)


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