Perfectionism/Shame: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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In 2016, Princeton University professor Johannes Haushofer publicly posted his “CV of Failures.”  Headings included “Awards and scholarships I did not get” and “Degree programs I did not get into.”  His refreshing courage in openly admitting these rejections and setbacks resonated widely, a pushback against shame and embarrassment. 

Our culture celebrates perfection as a laudable trait. But as an impossible standard for any human, perfectionism can be toxic. And paradoxically, perfectionism is often a defense against underlying feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy, and inferiority, resulting in efforts to avoid “failure” at all costs. A deep sense of shame accompanies anything perceived to be a mistake or less than “exceptional” performance.

Studies have shown a large and rapid increase in perfectionism in the younger generations over the past 20-30 years (a study in college students showed a 40% increase). This has substantial negative effects on mental health. Among the various explanations for this trend, two stand out.

  • Many young people feel under intense pressure to excel academically and vocationally. Achievement is measured in metrics: test scores, rankings etc. Various social and economic factors have resulted in increased competitiveness in schooling and college admissions.  Parents respond to these societal and structural changes, exacerbating the increasing pressures on children and young adults (GPA’s above 4.0, multiple AP classes, the push to excel in sports AND do community service AND engage in “leadership” roles to optimize the college application packet). Not to mention writing the perfect college application essay- original, witty (but authentic), and personal (but not too sentimental). The external messages focused on achievement and performance become internalized and self-imposed. The striving to avoid feelings of shame associated with perceived “failure” comes with substantial costs in health and happiness. And, paradoxically, perfectionism often worsens performance. 
  • Social media is another major contributor. We are steeped in images of beautiful people displaying markers of wealth and success, living magical lives, with perfect families. The focus is increasingly on physical appearance, material belongings, financial status, and popularity. It’s human nature to compare the complicated reality of our own lives to these highly curated representations of others. And we feel worse about ourselves by comparison (“negative social comparison”).
  • Negative self-talk associated with perfectionism can include thoughts such as “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I should be able to…,” “I’m a loser.”  People feel that they need to perform flawlessly all the time, never let others down, and never make mistakes. (And anything they perceive as less than perfect is automatically categorized as a mistake.)

Canadian psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett developed a model describing three elements of perfectionism:  self-oriented (self-critical), other-oriented (expecting others to be perfect), and socially prescribed perfectionism (believing that everyone expects you to be perfect and fearing rejection if you are not). Socially prescribed perfectionism has risen the most in the past 20-30 years, especially in young people, with substantial psychological risks, including depression and suicidal thinking.  

[To be clear, toxic perfectionism is distinct from having high standards and a strong work ethic accompanied by intrinsic self-worth and some tolerance for adversity, setbacks, and uncertainty.] 

Perfectionism carries many costs. If identity is tied solely to what you do (instead of who you are), the inevitable disappointments of life are attributed to personal flaws. Perfectionists are overly critical of themselves and lack self-compassion. They have difficulty moving past small mistakes and dealing with adversity, instead experiencing profound feelings of shame and guilt.

Without a strong sense of intrinsic self-worth, there is a constant need for external approval and validation. An intense fear of negative evaluation by others often results in loneliness and personal disconnection; the worry is that if we allow others to see our true, flawed selves, people will dislike and lose respect for us. Therefore, we keep our distance and keep up appearances, interacting only superficially.  

Also, no level of accomplishment is ever enough. Perfectionists are unable to feel fully satisfied with having achieved a goal. Or to fully appreciate the positive things. They often have difficulty relaxing; there is always another level to achieve to stave off feelings of inadequacy.

Especially relevant for young people, perfectionism carries the cost of not fully exploring one’s identity and interests, which requires taking risks, learning from mistakes, and pursuing avenues which may not pan out. This leads to hampered creativity, missed opportunities and a narrowing of life. 

  • Psychologically, perfectionism is commonly associated with:
  • Anxiety (worry, rumination)
  • Unhappiness/depression
  • Social anxiety (fear of negative evaluation by others)
  • Procrastination (avoiding tasks due to anxiety about making a mistake)
  • Self-sabotage (withholding effort and avoiding challenges for fear of failing)
  • Eating disorders
  • Diminished joy and fulfillment 

Psychotherapy can be very helpful in exploring the factors and fears underlying perfectionistic traits, and addressing self-esteem, negative self-concept, and life goals in a nonjudgmental context. One type of therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on recognizing distortions in thinking, such as all-or-nothing thinking (e.g. “anything less than an A is failure”), catastrophizing (“if I don’t ace this presentation I will be fired”) and other underlying false assumptions (“I need to be perfect to be loved”).

 Other suggested strategies to address perfectionistic traits include disconnecting from social media (which is admittedly difficult); noticing “should” and “must” self-messages and consider “what if I don’t?”; targeting procrastination by breaking tasks into smaller steps; and trying something new and allowing room to make mistakes. 

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept (too complex to fully explain here) that acknowledges and values the beauty, magic and humanity of imperfection.  Beauty resides in asymmetry and authenticity and vulnerability. Taking a step back from the drive towards achievement provides an opening up of space to notice, fully experience, explore, and appreciate all that surrounds us. Positive feelings such as gratitude and love follow, allowing for increased life satisfaction and a deeper sense of meaning. 

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