The 20-Ton Shield of Perfection(ism)

From, a smart look at the subject of perfectionism by Brene Brown entitled “Want […]

David Zahl / 11.29.10

From, a smart look at the subject of perfectionism by Brene Brown entitled “Want To Be Happy? Stop Trying To Be Perfect”. Although the “solutions” section definitely veers into self-help land, her discussion of the mechanics of the Law is pretty spot-on/convicting. Speaking as someone who “struggles with” this issue, I find that most people talk about it as a pseudo-badge of honor, i.e. “You’ll have to forgive him – he’s a perfectionist”, “I know she’s hard on you, but she just has really high standards” etc. It would appear to be one of those unsanctified modes of thinking that is particularly susceptible to the American blessing. And not to sound overly pious, but perfectionism should probably be spoken about in hushed tones, something to be confessed and repented of, to be saved from. ANYWAY:

The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting, but as hard as we try, we can’t turn off the tapes that fill our heads with messages like “Never good enough” and “What will people think?”

Why, when we know that there’s no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone? Is it that we really admire perfection? No — the truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.

We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. 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. We all need to feel worthy of love and belonging, and our worthiness is on the line when we feel like we are never ___ enough (you can fill in the blank: thin, beautiful, smart, extraordinary, talented, popular, promoted, admired, accomplished).

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.

Living in a society that floods us with unattainable expectations around every topic imaginable, from how much we should weigh to how many times a week we should be having sex, putting down the perfection shield is scary… Why are we so paralyzed by what other people think? After studying vulnerability, shame, and authenticity for the past decade, here’s what I’ve learned.

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

There are certainly other causes of illness, numbing, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.

As I conducted my research interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seem to be struggling for it. That one thing is the belief in their worthiness… The greatest challenge for most of us is believing that we are worthy now, right this minute. Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites. [ed. note: add “in light of the Cross” and the sermon has been written!]