Brené Brown’s Definition of Perfection

Perfectionism is often potrayed as a positive trait. For example, one person compliments another, and the other person responding with “Oh yea … I’m such a perfectionist.” The two people then flash smiles at one another. So, for me, growing up, perfectionism tended to be considered a positive trait.

But as it turns out, perfectionism has a dark side.

In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown states that “Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.”

Whoa — shame and perfectionism are somehow linked together? How?

Well, let’s start with what perfectionism is not. Perfectionism is NOT internally driven; it is not striving to be the best nor striving for excellence. Perfectionism is unhealthy striving. In contrast, healthy striving is driven from the inside out. And one way to detect whether you are operating in perfectionism is if you find yourself asking:

“What will people think?”

Perfectionism is the arch nemesis of mastery. In fact, Brené Brown considers perfetionism as a barrier towards gaining mastery. Mastery requires both curiosity as well as viewing “mistakes and failures as opportunities for learning.” In contrast, perfectionism kills curiosity — perfectionism steers us away from looking or feeling inferior. The effect of perfectionism is as follows: 1) avoiding to try new things or 2) barely recoverying from every we inevitably fall short.

Detecting Perfectionist Traits

  • Doomed to fail at both meeting 1) own expectations 2) expectations assumed to be held by others
  • Perceive themselves as consistently falling short of other people’s expectations
  • Behave in ways that result in perceived and actual exclusion and rejection by others (wow, this one is interesting and really piquing my interest … curious what this looks like)
  • Feel socially disconnected and have fewer social connections (this one too is interesting and can think of people, including myself, who excel due to perfectionism, often are more isolated, maybe not completed, but yes — fewer social connections)

What’s the primary thought of perfectionism?

“If I look perfect, live pefectly, work perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize painful feelings or shame, judgement, and blame”

Again, it’s worth repeating: perfectionism is not self-improvement. Rather, perfectionism has more with earning acceptance and approval.

What are some possible reasons for breeding perfectionism?

  • Raised for both achievement and perforamcne (e.g. good grades, good manners, nice appearance, sports prowess)

Overtime, the connectino one makes in the brain is as follows: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. To compare … with self-improvement, it’s more focused on “How can I improve” and perfectionism is more focused on “What will they think?”

So why does this all matter? Also for me, understanding perfectionism is really important, because I discovered (in the past couple months) that I have a high degree of acceptance (people with high degrees of acceptance often are more prone to mental health issues, anxiety).

So why should we care to understand perfectinoism and being able to distinguish from healthy striving (i.e. self-improvement?)

According to research, perfectionism “hampers success.” Often, perfectionism serves as a direct path to: depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis — opportunities that we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world’ that could be imperfect. In addition, life paralysis is the dreams we don’t follow because we’re afraid of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others.

Put differently, perfectionism is “self-destructive and addictive belief system that weuse to try to protect ourselves from feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.” We think that perfectionism protects us … but it really prevents us “from taking flight.”

Why is perfectionism both self-destructive and addictive?

Perfectionism is destructive because not only is it elusive … it simply DOES NOT EXIST. It’s unattainable. It cannot be reached. Never. Ever. And it’s again, less to do with improvement, more to do with perception, about being perceived as perfect. And how we are perceived cannot be controlled.

Wow – this next part really hits home. And while reading it, my jaw dropped. Perfectionism is addictive because we do fall short — when we feel shame, judgement, and blame — we think it has to do with the fact we aren’t perfect enough. Instead of questioning this faulty logic, we double down, “even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.”

So in sum, people often use perfectionism as a shield, in effort to hide from shame, judgement, and blame — but really, perfectionism increases the likelihood that we experience these feelings and leads to self-blame: it’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough