Perfectionist? Feeling shame? A little self-compassion helps.
"where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking" - Brené Brown
Exactly! My clients talk about the barrier of perfectionism and I certainly see it in myself. Maybe you want to try something new: writing a blog, a new career path, rock climbing. Perhaps you feel like you want to push through to the next level on something but you worry that you'll fail, worry that you can't control the outcome. So you stay stuck where you are, even though you'd like to make some positive changes.
The Role of Shame
The point is that perfectionism has shown up on the scene once again. We can look at perfectionism as behaviors and thoughts that can sometimes be helpful but often are harmful. Certainly attention to detail, careful planning, and other perfectionistic tendencies often lead to better outcomes. But when these tendencies stop us from trying out new behaviors or living our life according to our values, it becomes a problem.
Often it is easy to notice feelings of anxiety around these perfectionist thoughts. Anxiety about being able to control the outcome, anxiety about failing, anxiety about what others will think of you. What Brené Brown points out is that underneath all of these is the feeling of shame. It is a great insight to consider. Ultimately we may not try out something new because we are fearful of feeling shame, fearful that others will shame us. Noticing the feeling of shame and its presence in our lives can help us to reconsider and reexamine the perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors that really are self-limiting.
The Self-Compassion Test
Interestingly, I notice that if we try the self-compassion test on this we often find things a little easier. We feel less shame and therefore, less perfectionistic. Let's say a friend told you that she just started her own business. She describes all of her failures along the way, but ultimately, her business is up and running, even though she had lots of detours. You are genuinely proud of her and congratulate her. What a great accomplishment! Even though she couldn't control the outcome, even though she didn't quite meet the goals she envisioned, you see the amazing things she has done. With others, we often find it quite easy to forgive mistakes and detours and focus on the accomplishment, even if things didn't go quite as planned.
It is often different for ourselves, isn't it? The agony we put ourselves through because we didn't accomplish exactly what we set out to do, exactly according to plan. We find ourselves not really celebrating our accomplishment and instead focus on the mistakes we made along the way. Even worse - we do this in our planning stages and often decide it is just too risky to try anything at all. Lurking underneath is often the feeling of shame - I am ashamed of my (potential) failures and mistakes. That is the test: can you find the same compassion for yourself that you can find for others?
Try Being Compassionate with Yourself
Next time you're getting ready to move forward with a new project, new idea, etc. and you start punishing yourself for the mistakes you've made or become fearful of moving forward, try this:
- Notice the feelings that come up. Perhaps you notice anxiety. Maybe some feeling of shame. Try being open to these feelings, leaning into them a bit even, if you are able. Sometimes it is helpful to notice how it feels in your body. If it is overwhelming, don't forgot to take a breath.
- Switch the storyteller. Try imaging that instead of you talking about your project, idea, behavior, accomplishment, it is a loved one telling the story - someone you really care about. Notice the feelings that arise. Do you find yourself more open to mistakes, the possibility of failure, things not going as planned? Do you notice feelings of compassion and love toward this person, rather than shame and anxiety?
- Switch the storyteller again. Holding the mindset of your loved one, can you try focusing this same compassion on yourself? Imagine offering yourself the same compassion that you offered to your loved one as you think through what you are trying to do. Notice what kind of feelings come up for you and be open to them if you can. Do you notice any shifts? Do feelings of shame perhaps shift to something else?