Today I went to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned. My dental hygienist is a very nice young and insightful woman. She was telling me how she worked in my dentist’s office and previously in another, and a coworker at the other clinic was a troublemaker. She tried to diffuse the situation with the coworker, but to no avail. She told me that she finally left that job, that she told the dentist the truth about what had been going on, and that she left on very good terms, even though he hated to lose her. She went on to tell me that she started thinking about her life, how she loved coming to work and helping people, and wanted to keep that, and that if she needed to, she could get more hours with another dentist. She said that the quality of her life and her feelings about her job mattered more to her than staying in a place she had come to hate. She said that the troublemaker was young and healthy, and asked why, if she didn’t like her job, she didn’t do something about it. She added, “But people don’t know what they want. We learn to want what we are told to want.”
This was a very sad statement, especially from someone so young, but it is unfortunately true. We are taught what to want and keep trying to get at it whether we like it or not. We are told that the school, the job, the money, the prestige--all meaningless without some satisfaction or contentment--are what matter. Having more than others, being the best--the list of what we are told to want goes on and on. People go broke getting the car they are told to want, or will perhaps attend a school they feel is really not training them well. I can’t begin to count the number of people I have worked with who felt stuck in a job they were miserable in because it was a “good” job that paid well, and a lot of people would love to have it. This has been a theme I have seen over and over for thirty years, and it is very sad every time. We are told to want to chase after certain things and, if it is soul-numbing, too bad; we are supposed to keep on.
As bad as this is and as tragic as the waste is, what is it like for people with a lot of shame? “Surely”, they think, “Everyone else’s feelings have more validity than mine.” Many people with an inordinate amount of shame can’t get beyond this. Then they have the issue of having to tell their parents or other loved ones that they do not want, for example, to follow the career they had hoped for. More shame. Many people with a lot of shame will tell you they don’t even know what their feelings are. When they begin to know them, they cry and realize they had never known before how they really felt about things. In trying to be “good,” they totally squelch who they really are. They go through the motions, hoping to alleviate the mental torture of trying to be what they think someone else wants, or what others say they “should” want.
It is no wonder that people are starved for meaning, and in my view those with shame and perfectionism have been robbed of that more than almost anyone. A kind of numbness lies beneath their sadness, understandable given that they feel they can’t even have their feelings. Many are stuck in unsatisfying situations because they are regarded as prestigious or to be what they think “everyone” wants. They would have to be crazy to leave. As a psychologist, one of the saddest things I see in helping people with shame and perfectionism issues is that they really do think their feelings don’t matter.
No matter what you are going through and what your life narrative is, please remember that your feelings DO in fact matter, and that they have to matter first to you. Apparent success and achievement are not the same as contentment or liking yourself.
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.