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Shame and Perfectionism

Shame and Perfectionism

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame and its cousin, perfectionism. They come up frequently in my therapy practice and among my students. I truly believe shame is the enemy of wellness.

Shame is a belief or narrative about oneself that says “I am bad” or unworthy. It frequently stems from a trauma where we have suffered deeply and have been left alone in our suffering. In our desire to make sense of the world, we may blame ourselves for the traumatic event. This is especially the case with childhood traumas which can lead to a lifelong pattern of self-loathing. The misbelief that we are responsible for the trauma is the seed of shame.

Shame in the Body: As adults, we may carry (often unconsciously) a significant amount of shame. It is a corrosive view of oneself and it has a truly unpleasant resonance in the body. It is the deep “ick” feeling, often experienced on the skin and in the gut, that makes us want to flee.

Because shame feels awful, we generally don’t address it – we block it out and repress it. We simply don’t want to feel it in the body. However, if we don’t turn toward shame, and build our capacity to sit with its bodily unpleasantness, we cannot expunge it from our body and feelings.

Perfectionism: One we often try to manage shame is through perfectionism. Perfectionism is rooted in an unconscious belief that if we make everything “just right” – in our work, our dress, our communication, our homes, and our bodies – we will avoid a repeat of the initial trauma and its consequences. We equate perfectionism with safety. The childlike part of our minds believes that we can avoid a repeat of trauma by being “perfect.”

Arielle Schwartz has written extensively about shame and trauma. She suggests several strategies for addressing shame:

1) Monitor our self-talk: We should work to acknowledge our individual feelings rather than making definitive statements about who we are. Instead of saying “I am a lonely person” or “I am bad” we can redirect our attention to see these as only momentary feelings: “I feel lonely right now” or “I am feeling bad this morning.” Despite how loud our feelings yell at us, they are momentary and will pass. Shame is sinister because it turns a momentary feeling into a blanket statement about our eternal value.

2) Recognize shame and perfectionism: Shame is a bully that thrives on self-judgment and self-criticism. We have a seemingly limitless ability to tell ourselves what we “should” be doing, how we “ought” to be, and what we have not done “right.” While there are certainly things we need to do in this life, we can benefit from cultivating more appreciation for our successes, acknowledging for our abilities, and bringing compassion for our limitations. Every time we see shame, we should meet it with self-kindness. Kristin Neff, a clinical psychologist has developed a 5-minute self-compassion break here.

3) Meet shame in the body: Rather than immediately turning away from the feeling shame in the body, we can begin to label how it shows up and, in the process, make way for it. Simply saying “It’s here and I feel it crawling on my skin” can help. In those moments, instead of disconnecting from the experience (or “dissociating”), we can scan to find areas of calm and safety and point our attention to those safe bodily spaces. Body scans are incredibly helpful in this regard.

Shame can be dealt with it. It does not need to monopolize our lives.

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