We want to excel in our lives—striving for excellence. But how can we differentiate our positive pursuit of excellence from an addictive desire to be perfect?
A job well done can be very fulfilling. It can feel rewarding to complete a home project, excel at work, or know that we’re a person who is punctual and conscientious.
But when does our striving for excellence degenerate into a dysfunctional clinging to perfectionism?
How Shame Drives Perfectionism
Many of us grew up in families where we were rewarded for achieving results. And we may have been shamed when we didn’t meet others’ expectations. Whether we received painful tongue-lashings or subtle glances of disapproval, we may have received the message that we’re accepted and loved when we’re “successful”—and rejected when we fall short.
Through a slow and steady toxic messaging, we may have developed a false self that we display to the world to win praise and avoid the heartache of disapproval. When our need for acceptance and connection has been frustrated, we may carry old hurts due to rejection.
it is this steady diet of being shamed for inevitable shortcomings can give rise to a vigilant perfectionism. If we can be perfect in all that we do, then nobody can blame or criticize us. If we become competent and error-free in all our endeavors, we may avoid the painful re-activation of shame and hurt.
Sadly, we pay a steep price for our perfectionism and vigilance. It’s difficult to experience true joy and fulfillment when we feel compelled to pursue the impossible mission of being great at everything. When our self-worth is tied to our actions rather than embracing ourselves as a human being with strengths and weaknesses—we set ourselves up for being anxiously preoccupied or depressed.
A Path Toward Freedom
It is very freeing to loosen the grip of perfectionism that might be driving us. But first we need to recognize how shame may be operating.
If we can notice the felt sense of shame, being mindful of how it lives in our body or perhaps through an “inner critic” that keeps jabbering, “Don’t look foolish, you’d better not fail, you should try harder”, we can begin to get some distance from it rather than being driven by it: “Oh, there’s that shame again telling me I have to be perfect to be okay and scaring me with catastrophic consequences if I don’t get it right.” Being able to identify when shame is arising begins to loosen its grip over us.
Being human means screwing up sometimes. We can learn and grow from our mistakes by humbly acknowledging them and being compassionate toward ourselves. And we’re more likely to succeed when our creativity is freed up because we’re no longer paralyzed by the fear of failing.
As we notice when we’re being harsh with ourselves, we can replace the critical, shaming voice with a kinder one: “I can only do my best. I’ll pursue excellence because it feels gratifying (or because it’s part of my job), not because I need to please everyone. If things go well, fantastic. If not, I can find peace in knowing that I did the best I could, given time limitations and recognizing other things in my life that need attention, such as time with my family and friends.”
Such a balanced way of living can be very freeing. Each person needs to find his or her own balance and path forward. The trick is to wholeheartedly apply ourselves without getting too attached to results.
It’s a worthy path to pursue excellence without the burden of getting obsessed with any particular outcome. We realize that there can be pleasure and meaning in our activities regardless of whether we succeed or fail in any enterprise.
As you become mindful of the shame and fear that may be driving the cruel burden of perfectionism, remember this: you don’t need to be perfect to be loved and accepted. And as you replace the desire for perfection with the pursuit of excellence, you don’t need to do that perfectly either.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.
Pixabay image by Geralt