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How To Break Free From Perfectionism And Shame

How to Break Free From Perfectionism & Shame

Learning how to break free from perfectionism & shame can be daunting, but with practice, it’s possible to transform these painful feelings into self-growth and self-actualization.

The teacher meant well but she taught us a harmful lesson. Ms. Stern* took a sheet of loose-leaf paper and crumpled it into a ball. Then she opened it up and smoothed out all the creases. She did a thorough job and got the paper to lie flat on her desk. Next, she picked up a fresh sheet of paper from the pile.“See? Although I smoothed out all the wrinkles, this sheet will never look like this one,” she said, holding them side by side for emphasis. “You can still see all the creases.”

Her message was obvious: mistakes leave us permanently damaged. You can correct it, but you’ll never be the same.

Her lesson carried two harmful messages: perfectionism and shame.

What is perfectionism?

Perfection is a Sisyphean burden; no matter how hard we push, we will never achieve it. No person has ever reached perfection, nor is there any chance they will. Perfection is not the goal; growth is, and perfectionism obstructs growth. Perfectionism inhibits us from pursuing our goals because we want to avoid failure and criticism. The thought of failure is so frightening it prevents us from taking necessary risks.

When the announcer at a race says, “ready, set, go,” the perfectionist may get stuck at the ‘set’ stage and never move on to ‘go’. For them, a better approach would be this: Ready, go, set.

This feels frightening and counterintuitive. Yes, planning and preparation are essential for success, but they are not the only elements to achieving a positive outcome. Paradoxically, failure is the gateway to success. Making an attempt, putting in your best effort, failing, and then trying again is the process of every successful endeavor.

Perfectionism is an outgrowth of shame.

What is shame?

Like perfectionism, shame is never useful and impedes achievement.

Shame is not the belief that we’ve done something wrong; it is the belief that there is something wrong with us. It is linked to who we are, not what we’ve done. Shame is the feeling we get when we’ve transgressed a norm, and sense we are being judged. The judgment is made of us, not of our behavior.

What’s the difference between shame and guilt?

Guilt is the feeling that lets us know that we have done something wrong, something that doesn’t align with our values. It is about our behavior. When we feel guilty, we are motivated to correct our mistakes. Once corrected, guilt is often replaced with feelings of pride or virtue. We feel cured, a better person than we were before. You won’t be the same after making a mistake. You’ll be better.

Guilt prompts us to correct our behavior, shame lingers and plagues us, disturbing our sense of self. So to defend ourselves against these feelings of shame, we aim for perfection.

In our quest to break free from perfectionism and shame, we can look to Brené Brown, a research professor and expert in this space. Brené Brown, explains shame as follows. “When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun. It comes from worrying what other people will think. We believe that if we can look perfect, live perfect and work perfect, we will avoid criticism, blame, and ridicule. It is a shield but is actually a burden that we carry around hoping it will keep us from being hurt.”

How to Break Free From Perfectionism and Shame

When someone is raised with shame, perhaps their mother constantly said, “What’s the matter with you? You’re such a bully” as opposed to, “Stop hitting your sister right now”. This shame attacking causes “bully” to become a part of their identity as much as their name.

Living with toxic shame, the belief that we are bad, is a burden that shackles us to the past.

Moving towards self-growth and self-actualization:

To break free from perfectionism and shame is no easy task. We are programmed from an early age to strive for perfection with words like “do your best” and “try better next time”.  None of us like making mistakes. In reality, however, the mistakes we make are often our best teachers.

There is an age-old tradition in the Japanese culture called kintsugi which honors the brokenness people feel. Through its practice, it highlights imperfections instead of hiding them. Kintsugi means “to join with gold” and encourages people to stay optimistic when things fall apart. This practice takes the form of restoring broken pottery instead of discarding it.

How to Break Free From Perfectionism and Shame

It acknowledges that accidents happen; a favorite piece of pottery may slip from your grasp, breaking into pieces. Those who practice kintsugi do not discard the broken pottery. Instead, they piece it back together. They join the broken pieces with sap and then overlay it with gold, highlighting the fracture, not hiding it. Gold is valuable. Gold is beautiful. It transforms the piece of pottery from a damaged or broken dish into a work of art.

Scars are not shameful. We can transform them into a thing of beauty.

There is no doubt that traumatic events like shame affect us deeply. It changes our life. It makes us feel like a piece of broken pottery that is unusable. But in the hands of the right craftsman, we can be transformed into a work of art.

This is a lesson worth learning. We are both the craftsman and the work of art.

Ms. Stern was wrong. You will never be the same after making a mistake – you can be better.

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