On the relationship between shame and perfectionsim

As I hang out my shingle for the first time in my life, a pesky inner voice keeps shouting, "Who do you think you are!?" I am confident others know some variation of this voice, too. The sage on vulnerability, shame, perfectionism, and their interrelationship, Brene Brown, might say this mean-spirited messenger represents a kind of morphing shame. Whereas the old shame went on and on about never being good enough, the transformed one likes to yell, "Get off your high horse!" This shape shifting makes sense within Brown's framework because, as she notes, shame revolves around a fear of disconnection. Whether that fear of severed ties comes from a sense of inadequacy or of self-importance, the result is the same: we feel alienated, alone, and/or like we do not belong. In other words, when we believe we are separate, we suffer.*


Enter in perfectionism. I have boiled down this amazingly powerful force to constant striving (particularly for those of us driven by a fear of failure). Rest is not possible for the striving perfectionist because that would mean letting down a well-trained guard that says, "No matter what you do, you will never be good enough. So keep on trying. Even when you realize that the oodles of self-judgment you are heaping on yourself for making mistakes are wearing you out and your ideal state of being is a mirage, REMEMBER: if you stop trying to prove yourself, you and your life will mean nothing!" A devastating aspect of such perfectionism is that it hinges on the distorted belief that we are our actions and our actions alone. To stop striving means to fall into a giant abyss of nothingness. This sense of being inherently not-okay--of constructing an identity that revolves around stamping out our imperfections--is the ground on which shame establishes itself and thrives.

Sounds pretty grim, right? The good news is that we can recondition long-held beliefs and transform them into a sense of belonging and wholeness. Just repeating the words, "I am enough," over and over again, can begin to get some sufficiency neurons firing and wiring together, to borrow very loosely from the folks who study this stuff.

However, and as Brown's research shows, a dramatic shift in our relationship to ourselves and the world does not spring from the soil of logic and reason alone. Rather, it requires a leap of faith. To borrow from Brown, "it's our fear of the unknown and our fear of being wrong that create most of our conflict and anxiety. We need both faith and reason to make meaning in an uncertain world."**

This stripe of faith is not about believing that everything is as it should be ("should" signalling that judgment from somewhere is still hard at work) or that a reason underlies every event. Rather, such faith is about learning to be comfortable with uncertainty. After all, everything, including ourselves, is constantly changing, and that process of change is often unpredictable and out of our control.

This faith is also about trusting that we are part of an interconnected world, even when we cannot perceive our connections with others, the environment, or, perhaps most painfully, ourselves. It drives a willingness to say to ourselves--even when we do not yet believe the words--"I am enough. As is. Not less than. Not better than. I am enough." Full stop.

Danna Faulds gets the final word on bringing these words of sufficiency to life with her poem "Awakening Now"***:

Why wait for your awakening? The moment your eyes are open, seize the day. Would you hold back when the Beloved beckons? Would you deliver your litany of sins like a child's collection of sea shells, prized and labeled? "No, I can't step across the threshold," you say, eyes downcast. "I'm not worthy" I'm afraid, and my motives aren't pure. I'm not perfect, and surely I haven't practiced nearly enough. My meditation isn't deep, and my prayers are sometimes insincere. I still chew my fingernails, and the refrigerator isn't clean. Do you value your reasons for staying small more than the light shining through the open door? Forgive yourself. Now is the only time you have to be whole. Now is the sole moment that exists to live in the light of your true Self. Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain. Please, oh please, don't continue to believe in your disbelief. This is the day of your awakening.

* I borrowed this idea from Tara Brach who said that all suffering arises from the belief that we are separate.
** This quote comes from Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection.
*** This poem was published in Fauld's book Go In and In: Poems from the Heart of Yoga.