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“We don’t claim shame.” You can’t believe how many times I’ve heard that! I know “shame” is a daunting word, but the problem is that when we don’t claim shame, it claims us: one of the ways it sneaks into our lives is through perfectionism. As a recovering perfectionist—notwithstanding the fact that I’m first and foremost a recovering alcoholic/addict—I would like to shed light on some of the myths about perfectionism so that we can develop a definition that accurately captures what it is and what it does to our lives.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.

Perfectionism then becomes this twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (i.e. grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports, etc.). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused—“how can I improve?” Perfectionism, on the other hand, is other-focused—“what will they think?”

Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.

Dr. Kramer