I don’t know when things began to be so misunderstood, but our cultures clearly contribute to perfectionism, shame, low self-esteem and a general dissatisfaction with the self. Children learn young that they are supposed to be the “best,” and that involves as many people as possible not doing as well as they do. We are supposed to build close relationships at the same time our “success” involves those around us not doing well. This seems to me a sick system, but we are raised in it. As a therapist who has treated numerous people who did manage to be the supposed best—even though they were intensely unhappy—as well as those who did not, I see what this does to people. I have always told my clients that it is good to know what they are “good” at and what they are not. When I started out, I remember being shocked that people had a hard time with this idea, that it was too loaded to be matter-of-fact. And yet, people pour into therapy complaining of having low self-esteem. What is self-esteem really but seeing ourselves as compared to others and coming out favorably or unfavorably? Far too often people compare the act others put on to their own real feelings. That is like comparing how you look as soon as you wake up to someone dressed for an event.
The things we are strong in then, as compared to others, form the basis for our so-called self-esteem. I’d like to trade in self-esteem for self-love, but culturally this is a very hard sell. Being happy with your actions and how you treat others, being tolerant and understanding, having compassion for others, being mindful of real feelings, both “positive” and “negative,” seeing how you affect others and why you react the way you do; these are all qualities that will lead to genuine contentment with one’s own self. But having more or being better or stronger than others will not provide this contentment, and yet we just keep on striving for these. How tragic, especially given that the people who play this game and win it still have no more “self-esteem” than anyone else—often less. Now that they have “won” they know they are no good. Why, they are exactly as they were before!
I can’t tell you how sad it is when apparently successful people come for therapy in mid-life having a giant panic attack saying they have never done anything meaningful for anyone—for people, animals, the planet, science. They are not only depressed and in crisis because of an emptiness and a fear of wasting life, but because of what they call low self-esteem. And if we want to be honest, the qualities mentioned above are valued by a relative few. Raising my daughter, I don’t remember other mothers bragging about their children having a kind character or seeing a sense of connectedness, but they talked plenty about their grades and how they did in sports. It was bad enough going through this junk in life and in my practice, a specific part of my life; I could not go through this anymore with the other mothers. One “hot dog day” when I was volunteering and one mother kept pressing me, I had to tell her and a few others that different things were important to me and that I saw things differently and that it would be better if I were not in the conversation. I kept thinking of the generations of this that would be produced.
Family conditions of course can create a shame-based, perfectionistic personality Not only do neglect, abuse, and creating fear for real or imagined mistakes all produce excessive shame and perfectionism, but so do the parents who buy into the culture as discussed above. Many are shamed for anything less than excellence on a competitive standard. Even when the parents do not buy in, the children very often develop shame-based personalities. When the family has significant dysfunction, the child has little chance to be otherwise.
People have forgotten that doing one’s best means doing one’s reasonable best, while allowing for life to keep happening. I don’t know how many times I have told adult clients that doing their best on a job means doing the best they can while still maintaining a life. There are work cultures now where people ignore the end of the day, ignore dinnertime, and at 11 or 12 at night one brave soul makes some excuse. They raised the bar on themselves because the “best” for someone putting in 24 hours is more than someone working 8. Then, sadly, some people, fearing they won’t measure up to a standard they have bought into, do not try hard at all, do not put in enough effort, so that they can say they didn’t make it because they didn’t try. They tried to outwit the system they internalized but really were following it just the same. It works on values and beliefs and feelings, not just behaviors. The executives must love this dynamic. Adults working till midnight to do their “best” and children crying because they did not make cheerleader—where has this gotten us?
The “never give up” or “don’t be a quitter” value has placed numerous people, particularly the perfectionistic type, in sad and even dangerous situations. We have all known people who say over and over they are going to do this or that, and we learn that they will never do any of it and simply let them talk. But is the only way to not be that way to stick with a mistake, a bad situation, something that is wrong, or that we hate? A good friend of mine and wonderful therapist told me years ago that he started college majoring in engineering. I was shocked and couldn’t even picture him doing that. He said that he got Ds and Fs and went to the counselor to see about tutoring. The wise counselor told him that he could do that and would no doubt do better, but asked him why he would want to do this, since it was clearly not his calling. After some tests and some questioning, he said he would like to be a social worker and ended up an outstanding therapist. Why stay with a mistaken field? Another client, a highly intelligent young woman, dated someone several times who was exhibiting troubling behavior, and she wanted to get out of it. His words echoed her father’s: “You are just going to quit? You are going to give up?” She was miserable and had already cycled through a few tantrums of his and did not want to be with someone with that degree of rage. She felt like a “quitter” and he knew how to manipulate that. I’ve had clients where their parents even sided with the person mistreating their child. The only way to get free is to face the whole thing. So many times I have asked my clients, “Do what you want. Who do you have to answer to?”
There are times when leaving the track we are on is the only sane thing to do. It doesn’t mean that you give up the first time you have to study and put forth an effort. But the black-and-white thinking that often goes with perfectionism does not allow for degrees. A lot of people in abusive relationships have at the core the “never-give-up” philosophy, and this is tragic. When whole cultures seem to have lost common sense, though, how can we expect children to grow into adults who can apply a common sense standard to what has been ingrained in them over and over? What would happen if we decided not to buy into this thinking and help each other? What if, after making a mistake or a bad decision, we said we would give it up?
I have seen too many perfectionists manipulated by people who have them convinced they are “bad” somehow for not wanting to be taken advantage of, and people who try to quiet the inner voice of shame in ways that will not work. People turn now to mindfulness for a solution, and it is so important to know and remember that this path involves self-awareness. You can’t become mindful and ignore your true self.
After 20 years of practicing, I am glad to do what I do. I always want to help people with shame and accompanying issues. I am still indignant for them, whether they suffered abuse in the family or the culture. They will gain insight and self-compassion and will come to realize that their value to me is not based on the same system. With each person it is a new journey. It’s so hard for them, my brave clients, because just admitting they even have issues means they are not perfect. People have told me that the first session was hard because it meant they have a problem, forgetting in their pain that we all have problems. I spend year after year telling very bright and talented people that changing their major, divorcing an abusive person, leaving a horrible job, does not mean they do not keep promises. I never lose patience with them but I get frustrated with a system that keeps doing the same thing over and over when it doesn’t work. My supervisor when I was an intern told me once, “It is really only very little that we can do, but sometimes that very little is enough, and then becomes very big.” I always want to keep doing this very little, and as he said, sometimes it is enough to result in genuine healing and awareness and authenticity. It’s funny, but in my advertisement where I list issues I deal with I checked off self-esteem. What else can I do really? I do address what they are calling self-esteem but can’t in a short advertisement explain everything I’ve said above, so I guess I enter the system enough to be able to work with people who need this kind of help. It really does fill me with wonder in a terrible way to see how, collectively, we keep banging our heads against the same wall, over and over and over. It feels like I’m doing very little working with one person at a time who has been damaged, but I accepted long ago that we all can do what we can do, how we do it. I accepted the “very little” my wise supervisor taught me about.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.