“When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun. And fear is the annoying backseat driver.” ~Brene Brown
I do not like reminders—about anything. I’ve got to be perfect, so how can I do that if you keep reminding me that I’m not? Even if I have already done that thing you are reminding me about, I don’t like the reminder. It implies that I am not perfect, that you think I forgot something—or that I don’t know something I’m supposed to.
When reminded of anything, I tend to think things like, “Of course I already did that! What?! Do you think I’m stupid?!” Or, “No, I haven’t done that thing yet, but I’m not so stupid as to forget it!” Even though I may have forgotten it.
Brene Brown says that perfectionism is about fear. In her research on shame and vulnerability, she has discovered a few things about perfectionism that ring true for me.
“If I look perfect, live perfect, and work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame, and ridicule. I won’t get hurt.”
And while it may keep us from getting hurt, it also keeps us from being seen. Perfectionism is concern with what other people think instead of me doing what I think is right for me and striving for my own personal excellence. And as she points out, “You can never do something completely brave if you’re wearing the straitjacket of ‘what will people think.'” She calls perfectionism the 20-ton shield, because we use perfectionism to try and shield ourselves from hurt, vulnerability, shame, etc.
Perfectionism is trying to be beyond judgement, because being judged is too scary. But of course, there’s no such thing as a nonjudgmental world. And the irony of being a perfectionist is this: It makes me super judge-y—of others—and especially of myself.
My perfectionism probably comes from a not so pleasant childhood, where the only way to get positive attention was to be super perfect. And everything was a competition, therefore. I competed against my siblings, my classmates, teammates, teachers—the whole world—to try and be validated in some way that was good and positive. It was the only way I felt I had any worth. But as all responsible adults hopefully figure out at some point, it’s up to me to fix this shit.
“It’s not your fault you’re fucked up. It’s your fault if you stay fucked up, but the foundation of your fuckedupednes is something that’s been passed down through generations of your family, like a coat of arms, or a killer cornbread recipe…” ~out of the You are a Badass calendar, January 5, 2018
The impetus for me to begin thinking about my perfectionist tendencies came a few weeks ago when, during meditation, I heard, “What if you were good enough, Grace, right now and just as you are?” I felt my whole being—body, mind, spirit, and emotions—relax. And I really really really really really liked that unexpected relaxation. It felt so very foreign, but so very good. Because as a perfectionist, vigilance is a way of life—the only way. And it is absolutely exhausting!
It felt like taking off that stiff, painful, full-body, pinching girdle that has been holding everything in and up my entire life and getting to finally take a full breath and letting the cellulite fall where it may. But it was more than that too, because not only did it feel good, I flirted with the idea of being okay with all those freed rolls of fat—and even finding them beautiful. (Did I mention the really liking it thing?)
Just in case you have not been cursed with perfectionist tendencies and are curious, the perfectionist manifesto goes something like this. (Insert chronic pounding heart, elevated blood pressure, upset stomach/gut, your usual and favorite anxiety symptoms here) I can’t mess up. I can’t get it wrong. I can’t be wrong. I can’t make mistakes. I must keep up appearances. I must keep going. I must not let them see how upset I am. I must look good. I must appear to feel good. I must appear to be happy. I must not appear to be weak. I must be strong. I must always appear to be in control—especially when I am not. I. Cannot. Let. Down. My. Defenses. What will people think?!
And if by some horrible (normal), circumstance, I am wrong or make a mistake and my tight little weird world starts to tilt out of control? I can’t admit that—because that would mean I have no worth, wouldn’t it, if I can’t keep my shit together?
Then, my historical—and dysfunctional—recovery system consists of some variation of: When confronted with making a mistake or being wrong or being out of control, make a joke of it, “Oh, I meant to do that,” with as much (covertly frantic!) manufactured-on-the-spot practical humility and sincerity as possible. Blame someone—even myself. Every mistake is a chance to find someone to blame, right? Get defensive and angry and then slide right into martyrdom and throw it back at the other person (blaming, again), “What, I can’t make mistakes? Why are you always such a hard-ass? Can’t I be human and make mistakes? Are you being a bully?”
Wow. Ouch. I cannot express how embarrassing this shit is.
“In those areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame—those are the areas we’ll be dealing with perfectionism.” ~Brene Brown
To keep from going into shame about how much of a perfectionist I actually am, I remind myself that I am in good company. Brene Brown admits to being a perfectionist too. “I’m like a recovering perfectionist. For me it’s like one day at a time,” she says. Me too. All I can do is be aware of it and stop it in its tracks when I experience it.
I don’t expect to necessarily be able to “cure” myself of perfectionism. If the queen of all things vulnerable and shameful, Brene Brown, talks about taking her perfectionism one day at a time, what chance do I have? What I do expect is to always be aware of it, to stay in awareness and know I have those tendencies. And to be aware of the areas where shame is likely for me, and know that my perfectionism will be strong in those instances when a shame button gets pushed. It would also be a great thing to get past my shame, at some point, at being a perfectionist—maybe even be able to develop some sense of humor about it.
So far, the thing that is working for me? I feel the defensiveness and impulse to make someone else feel inferior (because that keeps me superior and perfect, right? Oy!), and I make myself stop, drop, and breathe before I open my big mouth. Then I think of that voice, that sentence, in my head, “What if you were good enough, Grace, right now and just as you are?” And I am able to relax, tell myself, “Okay, this is how my perfectionism manifests itself,” smile, and speak in a way that still feels defensive, but at least doesn’t sound defensive and superior as it comes out.
I am hoping to reach a point where I don’t even feel the defensiveness. A girl can dream, right? Because as a perfectionist, as someone trying to avoid being less-than, making mistakes, being wrong, etc., it is actually hard to admit I am less than perfect by having the flaw of being a perfectionist. Hay-suse! So, into the looking glass we go—again (ugh!).
Hello, my name is Grace, and I’m a perfectionist.