If you struggle with perfectionism, you might find yourself regularly getting trapped in guilt and shame holes. The perfectionist part of your brain thinks you are responsible for doing everything perfectly, and so when things go wrong, you can quickly jump to blaming and beating yourself up. You feel terrible about yourself, you want to hide and not talk to anyone. This feels awful. So why do we do it so much?
Turns out, guilt and shame are actually a little addictive, according to a new book published by New Harbinger. When you encounter a situation that seems stressful or dangerous, your brain wants you to “do something” to take care of the problem. When you take action to get rid of the stress or danger, the reward center of your brain kicks in and gives you a little hit of short-term relief. The problem is, your brain can perceive guilt or shame as “doing something.” So when you worry, ruminate, or blame yourself for something you think you did wrong, your brain perceives that as taking action, and you get a hit of short-term relief.
But guilt and shame aren’t the same as doing something. Most of the time, feeling guilty or worried isn’t actually productive. Shame is pretty much never productive. Even though your brain thinks these activities are helping, they really aren’t. Guilt and shame don’t actually do anything to solve problems or reduce stress long-term. They rarely inspire wise, effective action that solves whatever problem has arisen. They usually just keep you trapped in a hole. Despite the initial hit of short-term relief, they often lead to long-term problems like anxiety and depression.
What’s a better way? It starts with noticing what’s happening, awareness of the the hole you’re about to step into. When you feel the flush of shame rising up or the pressure of guilt and self-criticism bearing down on you, start by just naming what’s happening (like Sia sings, “here comes the shame”). Take a breath, feel your feet on the floor. Scan your experience. Is there another emotion underneath all that unproductive guilty-shamey noise? Do you feel sad, angry, scared? See if you can allow yourself to feel that core emotion that’s at the root of the shame.
Letting yourself feel an emotion from start to finish (and they all finish at some point, I promise no emotion lasts forever) can be extremely productive. When you let a feeling move through you, you are no longer using all your energy to try to suppress it or argue with it or change it. And you might find that the emotion brings with it some real wisdom about what action to take next — then you can actually do something, instead of just tricking your brain into addictive guilt and shame.
Perhaps you read that article about how having a first child brings about as much unhappiness as getting fired or divorced. It’s not that surprising when you think of it — for all the joys of having a baby, there is also sleep deprivation, stress, and the feeling that you don’t know what the hell you are doing as a parent.
But even less exhausting and stressful happy events can make you feel bad. Going on vacation, starting a new job, getting married, falling in love — all these things are pleasant, and they all cause upset to your equilibrium, triggering a stress response in your body.
For perfectionists, there’s another layer to this phenomena. Feeling happy, achieving a goal, winning a prize… these can cause upset to a whole part of your identity: your inner perfectionist. That inner perfectionist part lives to worry, to plan, to be busy. When you accomplish something, there’s a break in all the planning and doing, and that perfectionist part faces a moment without anything to do.
Having nothing to do terrifies your inner perfectionist, because that part believes that its worrying and working is the only thing that is saving you from becoming a complete and total failure. So those moments when you achieve something and think you should be happy? Those are the moments when your perfectionist part is in a total panic about your impending doom. Happiness is a threat to your inner perfectionist. All that worrying energy has to go somewhere. So you may find yourself searching for something to be anxious about. Or you may fall into a depression, a period of grief or emptiness.
It’s easy to get sucked into this anxiety and depression, to believe whatever the perfectionist says you’re supposed to be worried about next. But you can try something different. When you notice the wave of sadness, or the searching for a new thing to worry about, try pausing and just breathing. Welcome in the sadness or anxiety, don’t try to figure it out, don’t try to fix it, don’t try to push it away. Just let it be, let yourself feel it. Often when we bring acceptance to these emotions, they come and go, and there’s spaciousness on the other side… you might find that there is actually room for you to feel some of that happiness your inner perfectionist has been trying so hard to avoid.
On face value, it seems like a simple equation: depression and anxiety are making my life painful, so I want to reduce or get rid of those feelings. But change is rarely simple.
When you are working to change entrenched patterns, you almost inevitably come up against a particular roadblock: fear of who you will be if you change. Who are you without your anxiety, your depression? Maybe there feelings and patterns have been around for a while, and the thought of letting go of your sadness or worry means letting go of a part of your identity, a core part of self. Or perhaps that sadness or worry feels intertwined with some other, more desirable part of your personality, something you don’t want to go away. Sadness feels like a crucial ingredient in connection with others or in creativity, anxiety feels tied to ambition or achievement.
You don’t have to become a completely different person when you heal your anxiety or depression. Feeling happier doesn’t mean you have to turn into a relentlessly cheerful and optimistic person. Feeling more peaceful and calm doesn’t mean you turn into a completely carefree person who arrives late to everything and never makes plans.
You don’t have to throw your sadness and worry out the car door, leave them abandoned on the side of the road. Those things are a part of you, and you can and should make a space for them, without letting them run your life. You don’t want to shove them out the door, but you don’t want to let them drive anymore either.
If you engage in therapy or some other change process, you will still be you, all the parts of you will still be there. The change comes in the way those parts relate to each other. Rather than driving the car of your life, your sadness will be be sitting in the back. It can still have its feelings and voice its opinion, but a different, wiser part of you is listening and making the decisions, deciding when to turn, when to speed up and slow down. But your sadness can still play a Smiths song on the stereo, make sarcastic jokes, and feel melancholy.
Fears of losing yourself, losing your identity, are real. Change is scary. When those fears arise, reassure yourself that you aren’t going to leave any part of you behind.
Ever feel like everyone else at the party is at ease, and you are the only anxious one? Or do you ever scroll through social media and think that you are the only one having a shitty day or year? Does it seem like everyone in class or at work “gets it” without the struggle you go through?
It’s really not true — as a therapist I can tell you that loads of competent, high-achieving, and seemingly “together” people are twisted up inside with anxiety, worry, and perfectionist despair. Even when you know that intellectually, you can still get swept away in the feeling that everyone else is floating through life with ease, while you are frantically paddling to stay afloat. So you put on your game face too, pretend that you are fine when you are not.
There are a million perfectionist worries that cause us to mask our pain and put on a perfect face to the world. Maybe your reason is fear of looking weak, losing opportunities, being a burden on others, or something else. The root of all these concerns is the same, though: fear of rejection. We so desperately want to be liked, accepted, hired, promoted, admired, loved, that we do anything to appear perfect (and therefore lovable). So you post only positive stuff on social media, and you only ever answer “great!” when someone asks “how are you?”.
What we forget is that stress, struggle, sadness, worry — these are all universal experiences that connect us to each other as much as (or sometimes more than!) happiness. It’s scary to share this stuff with someone else, but that vulnerability you feel, that’s the gas that fuels connection.
So here’s an experiment: next time you are with someone who feels trustworthy, try answering the “how are you” question honestly. Look your friend in the eye and share the bad stuff along with the good. It feels scary at first, but there’s a great exhale at the other end, a feeling of relief at dropping the act and being real. And the feeling of connection between you two will be far more memorable and meaningful than the surface contact you would feel with yet another “I’m great, how are you?!” conversation.
Medication is helpful for some people some of the time, but often people come to me after trying anti-depressants and seeing very little difference. What can therapy provide that pills can’t? Check out this great piece in the New York Times to learn more about how therapy — and specifically accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP) — works.
Perfectionists often believe that the only way they are going to motivate themselves to keep succeeding at a high rate is to be hard on themselves. I can’t tell you how many perfectionists tell me that they secretly believe — they know — that if they stopped being cruel slave-drivers towards themselves they would instantly become lazy couch potatoes. They truly believe that their core selves are inert, un-ambitious, slobs that, if given free reign, will start an un stoppable slide towards destitution and despair. Maybe you believe this too.
This is a common superstitious belief, and I’m here to tell you it is not true. Research shows that motivating yourself through kindness, compassion, and positive reinforcement actually produces much better results than motivating through criticism and “shoulds.” A recent study out of UCBerkeley found that students who struggled with a difficult test and then practiced self-compassion were more willing and able to take actions to improve their performance or fix their mistakes. A study in Social Neuroscience journal showed that critical coaching activated the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system that is the seat of anxiety and fear), while compassionate coaching relaxed the nervous system and lit up the parts of the brain that control creativity, big-picture thinking, and goal visualizing. Put another way, critical coaching activates the “avoidance” system, where we move away from scary things and limit our risk-taking due to fear; compassionate coaching activates the “approach” system, where we are more open, creative, willing to take risks.
Compassion not only puts us in a frame of mind to be more willing and motivated to improve, it actually makes us physiologically more capable of success. Being in a relaxed state (parasympathetic nervous system activation) makes people more creative and better at handling complex cognitive concepts. When people are in fight or flight, as they usually are after criticism, heart rate rises, cortisol is released, and blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for cognition decreases. Despite our beliefs to the contrary, we really don’t do our best thinking under stress and duress.
So if you find yourself motivating yourself with endless “shoulds” and criticisms, try to catch yourself in the act, take a breath, and try a different way. Start by acknowledging that the task at hand is hard or unpleasant or daunting in some way, and offering yourself as much compassion as you can muster for any difficulties you are having. See what it’s like to re-approach the task from this new, more relaxed mindset. Is it different than shoulding all over yourself?
As I make my final preparations for my perfectionism workshop this Saturday I have been noticing my inner perfectionist voice getting louder and louder, growing from a whisper to a shout…the workshop isn’t good enough…you don’t know what you’re talking about…everyone’s going to laugh at you…you should probably cancel and make this better before putting it out there to the world. There have been moments where I have wanted nothing more than to cancel the perfectionist workshop…because it’s not perfect. I can have a little laugh at myself about the irony of that thought, but to be honest the humor doesn’t really lessen the pain all that much. Despite how much I think about and work on perfectionism — mine and my clients’ — I can still get squeezed in its grip at times, and suffer mightily.
I share this because I want my clients to know I’ve been where they are, and I know the pain that perfectionism can cause. I share this because I want my clients to know that personal growth is a bumpy process, and even as we improve overall there are still setbacks and moments of distress. As much as we might like to, we can’t surgically remove our perfectionist voices — or any other bothersome parts of our personality. My perfectionist voice shows up less frequently than it used to and is usually quieter, but it is still there. And it can still summon the strength to shout pretty loud sometimes, like it has this week.
While time and effort has changed my perfectionist voice slightly, the much bigger shift has been the way I respond to the voice. For a long time my default response was to believe its judgments (this project is not good enough, I’m not good enough) and then work extra hard (pulling all nighters, depriving myself of any fun) to prove it wrong. Of course, no matter how hard I worked or how well I did, the perfectionist in me could always find something that wasn’t good enough, and so I was never able to prove it wrong. I just stayed trapped in a cycle of working super hard and still feeling crappy about myself. Sometimes I achieved my goals this way, but I was never able to enjoy my successes. And just as often I gave up on my goals because I was so emotionally exhausted from beating myself up that I couldn’t accomplish what I set out to do.
After a lot of personal work, I now have a handful of other ways I respond to that critical voice. Sometimes my response comes from my gut, a powerful “knock it off” like I’m telling a schoolyard bully to back off. Sometimes I review the evidence against the perfectionist’s beliefs, get in touch with a less distorted version of the truth, using my head to talk myself out of the criticisms and judgments. These are sometimes helpful, but by and large the most effective response is response is one that comes from my heart, rather than my head or gut. For me, finding real empathy and compassion for what that perfectionist is trying to do for me is the key to getting out of the cycle of working hard and feeling shitty. I recognize that the perfectionist voice is trying — in its own weird, mean way — to prevent me from failing, to help me feel safe and strong. When I remember that the voice is trying to help, not hurt, I feel a little tender towards the perfectionist. I thank it for it’s efforts and remind it that I have some better ways of making myself feel safe and strong these days. Nine times out of ten, the perfectionist quiets down after this response… and without all my energy tied up in battling this voice, I have more inner resources available to work on my actual goal (like getting this workshop ready!).
What’s your default way of responding to your perfectionist? Would you benefit from a head-centered approach instead, or would a reply from the heart be more effective for you as it is for me? If my story of perfectionist struggles resonates with you, come to my workshop this Saturday and experiment with new ways of responding to that voice in your head. If what you’ve been doing isn’t working for you, what have you got to lose?
It’s January 22. By now, 30 percent of New Year’s resolutions have been “broken.” I put broken in quotes because slip-ups, mistakes, moments of overindulgence or forgetfulness do not mean your goal is now broken and you have to give up or start over. Setbacks or bumps do not mark the end of the road, they are a normal part of trying something new or improving on something established. Think of it this way — anything worth doing is likely to be hard, and when things are hard they don’t go smoothly. If a resolution or change is easy and goes flawlessly, it’s likely it wasn’t much of a challenge. If you achieve your goal without any setbacks, it’s likely you aren’t really challenging yourself or working at your edge. When you are really pushing yourself to grow, you will almost certainly fumble, screw up, fall behind, get frustrated.
Many people — especially perfectionists — have a habit of all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to mistakes or setbacks. The sting of getting less than an A+ can be so painful, embarrassing, or scary that we give up entirely at the first setback. Breaking a diet, missing a yoga class, having one cigarette….we view one mistake as a total failure, and just stop trying.
Or, we fall victim to another common perfectionist trap — being really hard on ourselves after a mistake, and punishing ourselves with self-criticism and even harsher standards and demands. We push ourselves to spend even more time at the gym to “make up for” missing a workout. (Well… we say it’s to make up for it, but if we’re honest it’s actually a way to punish ourselves.) But this sets us up for failure again as we become unable to meet those new standards. Or we fail ourselves by giving up too much in pursuit of our goal — giving up spontaneity, joy, relaxation, time with friends, down time, ease, or something else crucial to well-being.
I think about this stuff a lot, how to motivate and keep pushing towards ambitious goals without being so demanding and perfectionist that you get in your own way. I have gathered some of my favorite exercises and tools together in a workshop on February 7, 2015. If you struggle with perfectionism and goal-setting, read more about my workshop here, or contact me to see if it’s right for you.
Are you making pledges or promises to yourself this year? How did it go last year? There are a lot of tips out there for how to keep your resolutions, but I am more interested in what happens when you don’t achieve your goal….or when you have a setback, make a mistake, slip up. Do you beat yourself up, fall into a perfectionist hole, call yourself names? Do you give up your goal due to one setback? Or do you double down, increase your efforts to the point where you make yourself (and everyone around you) miserable? If resolutions are a source of misery for you, consider attending this workshop next month: A New Way to Do New Year’s Resolutions.
In this workshop you will:
- Find better ways to motivate yourself to keep your resolutions
- Discover how to be driven and goal-oriented while also feeling relaxed and happy
- Learn more about the misconceptions around ambition, compassion, and criticism
- Develop simple and effective ways to change the way you talk to yourself
New Year’s resolutions do not have to lead to self-criticism and feeling terrible about yourself. Learn to keep your resolutions with kindness instead of criticism.
Break the cycle of never feeling good enough.
Saturday February 7, 2015, 10:30am to 1:00pm
Early bird discount for registrations before January 19, 2015: $70
For those who think they need to beat themselves up, be harsh and critical in order to motivate themselves to do well, here is a study that found the opposite. People who practiced self-compassion were more motivated to improve performance and learn from mistakes than those who responded to difficulty with self-criticism.