We want to excel in our lives — striving for excellence in all that we do. But can we differentiate our noble pursuit of excellence from a dysfunctional desire to be perfect?
A job well done can be enormously fulfilling. It can be meaningful and pleasurable 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 the life-draining burden of perfectionism?
How Shame Drives Perfectionism
Many of us grew up in families where we were rewarded for achieving results and shamed when we didn’t meet others’ expectations. Whether we received painful tongue-lashings or subtle glances of disapproval, we may have gotten the message that we’re accepted and loved only when we succeed — and rejected when we fall short.
Through this slow and steady toxic messaging, we may have developed a false self that we display to the world in order to garner praise and avoid the ache of disapproval. When our need for acceptance and connection has been injured or disrupted, we may carry old hurts and traumas from subtle or blatant rejections.
A steady diet of being shamed for inevitable shortcomings can give rise to a vigilant perfectionism. If we can be perfect, then how can anyone can blame or criticize us? If we become knowledgeable, competent, and error-free in all our endeavors, we may avoid the painful re-activation of shame and hurt.
Sadly, we pay a high price for our perfectionism and vigilance. It’s difficult to relax and experience the joy of living when we feel compelled to pursue the impossible mission of having no limitations and being great at everything. When our self-worth is tied to our actions rather than embracing ourselves as we are — a human being with strengths and weaknesses — we set ourselves up for being anxiously preoccupied or depressed.
A Path Toward Freedom
When we live with a background feeling of being defective, unworthy, or flawed, we may compensate by trying to be perfect. It’s very freeing to loosen the grip of perfectionism that might be driving us. But first we need to recognize how shame is 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 yapping at us (“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 can 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 compassion toward ourselves. And consider this: We are more likely to succeed when our creativity is freed, which means not being paralyzed by the fear of failing.
As we notice those times when we’re harsh with ourselves, we can wisely replace the 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, that’s great. If not, I can rest assured that I applied myself as best I could, given time limitations and recognizing other things in my life that are important, such as having time with my family and friends.”
Such a balanced view can be very freeing. Each person needs to find his or her own balance and way forward. We can wholeheartedly apply ourselves without being so attached to the results.
It’s a worthy goal to pursue excellence, but remember that not getting too attached to any result is a helpful practice. There can be pleasure and meaning in our activities regardless of the outcome.
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. As you replace the desire for perfection with the pursuit of excellence, you don’t need to do that perfectly either.
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