Perfectionism is a mask of shame

Perfectionism is a mask of shame

Mindfulness | Thursday 7th September 2023
CyrièleBy Cyrièle

Today's a fire day and I'm teaching a yin class tonight. As always, I try to reflect and think about which message I want to convey during my class. I use the discipline of my students - showing up on the mat - to help them practice intentional self-reflection. Fire is associated to the 3rd chakra - Manipura chakra. This is the seat of the ego and it invites us to reflect on our sense of power and self-worth. Our capacity to overcome obstacles and our sense of purpose. A lot of emotions can get in the way of feeling empowered and driven. Shame is without a doubt the most damaging of all.

In my 20's, I used to feel like I had to be and behave a certain way in life and with people. I had this mental image of who I should be, and at the same time I felt like I just couldn't be that person and do those things. I wanted to be driven & confident, and successful in everything I was doing. But despite my best efforts - despite doing all the right things - I couldn't maintain it. It's a terrible stressful feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy. It took me years to realise that it was in fact motivated by a tremendous, debilitating amount of shame.

Sticking around people & situations I once chose and doing my best didn't change anything to how I felt. Worse, it was making me angry and resentful. I was on edge all the time and I hated that. That feeling of inadequacy triggered my own addictions - addiction is a coping mechanism that makes us feel safe - which in turn made me push people away so I could be more focused on stopping that self-destructive behaviour. It's a vicious circle powered by shame.

As a result, situations and relationships always ended up feeling suffocating and overwhelming: I hated feeling inadequate and incapable of matching my ideal self, and I felt like those places or people were in the way of my self-inflicted recovery. My relationships never lasted for more than 3 to 6 months at a time because I felt that I had to be on my own to be at peace and 'fix myself' first. I felt hopeless, and desperate to be 'normal'.

Shame makes people feel like there's an obligation of result in everything they do.

I wasn't fully aware that it was all my own doing. I was creating all the parameters that led me to feeling inadequate: holding onto the expectations - my so-called ideal self - the need to fulfil them, the subsequent panic for not managing to do that, the addictive behaviour to try and escape the feeling, and the need for control to come back to safety that always required some form of withdrawal and disconnect, from myself and from my environment.

The never-ending nature of this cycle made me feel like I was incapable of being who I wanted to be, and incapable of truly and sustainably connect with anybody. I couldn't understand what was wrong with me so how could anyone understand me? It also left me feeling guilty of my own behaviour sometimes, as I knew I was hurting people who didn't do anything to deserve it. But I genuinely felt like I couldn't do anything else.

In hindsight, I know now that it happened because I had been shamed into believing that I had to be and behave a certain way to be worthy, as opposed to being taught to listen to what I need and learn who I am as a person.

There's a huge difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a powerful place: it's about behaviours and behaviours are fairly easy to adjust. They're actionable. Shame on the other hand is a core belief: you could be on your best behaviour and have all the evidences proving it, you'd still feel like you're not enough, or you're doing something wrong. That's because it isn't based on your actions but on your perception of who you are. That's the difference between thinking 'I did something bad' (guilt) and 'I am a bad person' (shame). Of course, behaving 'perfectly' helps coping with it for some time, but it won't make the belief go away if we aren't aware that it's precisely that belief that we need to work on. It takes vulnerability, self-compassion, self-acceptance and time to change a core belief.

Even with the best support network, changing a core belief is very much a personal journey and nobody will be able to do the work on our behalf. It's hard, because we have to focus on the underlying problem, not the way it manifests itself through various coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are tricks our body and mind default to when we can't cope with our own feelings. Trying to fix them in the hope that one day we can finally reach that ideal state without addressing the root cause feelings will only lead to more withdrawing. And it won't make us feel less shame.

That's what I did for years; I felt safer and in control for a few months but it never lasted, as it's treating the symptoms without treating the cause. Because again, that shame comes from expectations that aren't even ours, and forcing ourselves to match them will only lead to more misalignment. Nobody can function if they aren't aligned with their own needs. It's like punishing ourselves into trying to be someone we're not. Nobody benefits from that, especially not ourselves.

Getting rid of that shame starts with genuinely forgiving ourselves for not being what others once projected onto us.

Those people don't know better who we're supposed to be, they're just projecting their own unresolved traumas and insecurities onto us.

To do that, we first have to connect with that shame and acknowledge its existence. That is very uncomfortable. We have to sit with it and accept it's there so eventually we can look at it and analyse it with enough emotional distance. Like a foreign entity. This comes down to packaging those feelings, understanding the beliefs behind them, admitting that those beliefs are responsible for that shame, and that they impact our thoughts, our capacity to process our feelings, and our behaviours. But also understand that they're just that : beliefs. They're not who we are.

To help us rewire our brain, we have to learn and know and love who we actually are. It's scary, because that shame is all we've ever known and we may feel like we don't know who we actually are without it. I know I didn't, and I was very scared to find out. What if I hated that person? And without those expectations, how do I even know what I'm supposed to do or not do? And how can letting go of expectations lead to improvement? Isn't that giving up?

I was terrified of letting go. I thought that my addictive behaviours would immediately take over if I wasn't always trying to reach towards that ideal self. I guess I believed that those behaviours defined who I was, instead of seeing them as a by-product of my shame.

There are more and more studies showing that addictions come from the inability to connect. There's a quote from a TED Talk about substance abuse:

"The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety, it's connection".

They talk about new research and evidence showing that when people can finally connect they don’t feel the need to fall into addictive and self-destructive behaviours anymore. Meaning that addiction has nothing to do with a chemical or mental inability to stop doing something. It is, and remains, a coping mechanism for those of us who can't connect with ourselves, our needs and subsequently anything and anyone else.

I wrote earlier that shame makes people feel like there's an obligation of result in everything they do. Love, on the contrary is saying, "I'm here for the journey, wherever it takes you". That's the message we need to tell ourselves.

Replacing shame with love, shifting this mindset takes time and practice. It requires to be disciplined in that intention.

It is a personal journey but it doesn't mean that we have to be on our own throughout the process. A trusted friend or a therapist can help us spot the indicators that shame is creeping up, and help us redirect our focus towards self-compassion. Though it's hard to share what makes us feel ashamed - it's already hard to admit it to ourselves - and it's difficult to accept help and love from others when we can't accept it from ourselves in the first place.

I appreciate that reading that connection, compassion, acceptance - love in a nutshell - is the solution sounds very vague, very naïve and very hippie, and it doesn't feel like the pragmatic and scientific solution we think we need. But however we call the exercise - self-awareness, introspection, therapy, chakras alignment... - it's talking about the same thing. It's just using different words.


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Xavier | Monday 16th October 2023

Reading your post, I was reminded of a Richard Feynman quote which I wrote down a couple of years ago:

"You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing." I found it liberating.

Looking for the full quote online right now, I stumbled upong this post, which seems fitting:

Cyrièle | Monday 16th October 2023

"Often it’s not the expectations of other people that burn us out and make us miserable, but those we place on ourselves."

The part about setting the right standard spoke to me a lot too. It reminded me of a diagram I came across whilst studying music & yoga, showing that our flow state sits where we find the right balance between challenge and skills. Too much challenge compared to our skills leads to anxiety. Whereas not enough challenge for great skills leads to boredom. Either ways, when we aren't in a state of flow - balanced - we feel stuck.
Thanks for sharing that article :)

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