“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
In the perfectionism literature, they often distinguish between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic striving refers to a striving for flawlessness and having high standards for yourself and others. Perfectionistic concerns refers to an overly critical evaluation of yourself – it’s a striving to not make mistakes so no one can criticize or blame you. This distinction is important because striving is healthy – having goals and pushing ourselves to be better versions of ourselves is the stuff motivation is made of. Having high standards for ourselves and others means we honor our emotions and enforce our boundaries when others encroach on them.
On the other hand, perfectionistic concern is debilitating. It’s that voice in the back of your head that’s always doubting, wondering if you should be doing things differently, fixating on your mistakes. It robs you of your confidence and makes each moment anxiety-laden, like your performance in that moment will define you forever. It also robs you of joy and pride – the positive emotions that keep us going – because how can you feel those emotions when everything is filtered through an eternal ‘not enough’ lens?
The obvious question then is how can I strive more and worry (concern) less?
What underlies perfectionism is an anxiety of some sort – a fear of being criticized, blamed, or shamed. And the perfectionism is a way of coping with that fear, typically a way of coping that once worked quite well. For example, let’s say you had a parent who was critical of how you washed the dishes and you became perfectionistic in washing dishes so they could never criticize you again. You were so thorough and attentive to detail, that you only ever got praised for your dish-washing since then. The perfectionism was a helpful way of coping in that environment.
But let’s say you leave that environment and now you’re in a romantic relationship. Your partner points out that you spend an inordinate amount of time washing dishes and any mention of dishes being dirty has the potential to send you into a panic. Now, the perfectionism is a not-so-helpful way of coping in this new environment, as there’s no critical parent to answer to, and no need to spend so much time doing dishes.
One thing I love about Brene Brown’s quote is that she refers to perfectionism as a shield that we lug around, thinking that it’s helping to protect us but instead it’s just getting in our way. That is clear in the example too, being perfect at washing dishes used to be a shield of sorts – a way to prevent criticism from a parental figure. Once you’re no longer in that environment though, the shield becomes an anchor and it weighs you down, you just don’t need it anymore.
The work that’s done in therapy is learning to lay down your shield, to let go of old ways of keeping yourself safe. Going back to the perfectionistic strivings vs concerns research findings, it becomes apparent that there’s something that the strivers have learned that the concerns folks haven’t. It’s that mistakes are beautiful and failure isn’t something to avoid but something to welcome. You need to make mistakes to know where you can grow, you need to fail to appreciate success. It’s not that you haven’t been perfect enough yet, it’s that what you’re avoiding is exactly what can help make you whole.
If you resonate with what I wrote and are interested in beginning psychotherapy, please contact me, I am offering telehealth and in-person sessions for CA residents.