Alen Standish talks about being a perfectionist and discusses procrastination, shame, connection and his own recent challenges with them all. He also talks about Brené Brown’s wonderful insights into these challenges and shares how he’s been applying them in his life.
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Introduction to Featured Topic
Today I want this dedicate this entire episode to answering the question: What is a Perfectionist? I’m going to try to define what it means to be a Perfectionist and talk about some of the challenges that come with the territory.
Also today I want to talk about the importance of recognizing shame and how it relates and impacts us as Perfectionists. And I feel that probably the best way to do that is to tell my own story and explain what’s been going on in my life here over the last 8 months.
And yeah, a lot’s happened.
What Is a Perfectionist?
So what is a Perfectionist? Instead of defining it just yet let me ask you some questions. I promise, these are super short but I think they’ll help frame the issue very quickly. And please, don’t try to fool yourself as you answer these questions. If some of these apply to you then just accept it and take note. It’s not a problem and you shouldn’t let yourself feel ashamed. This is just between you and yourself.
OK. So ask yourself…. Am I A Perfectionist?
- Do you hold yourself to unreasonably high standards or are you always trying to do the impossible? Do you maybe hold others to the same standards and feel angry inside when they can’t meet your demands?
- Do you try to be perfect in how you eat or how you workout but when you slip up or have a small setback do you then get angry at yourself and often give up?
- Do you think poorly of your achievements and feel they’re not enough?
- Do you compare yourself to others or feel bad about what you see in the mirror?
- Are you trying to be a supermom, super-dad, super-student or super-employee but you feel worn out or angry at yourself because you can’t do it all perfectly?
- Do you see things in your life mostly in terms of “black or white” or “good or bad”?
- Do you try to fit in, just get along or try to please others versus doing what you want or forcing the decision to take a path you’d prefer?
- Do you limit what you let yourself do vs trying new things and taking a risk because you’re afraid what others might think of you if you fail?
- Do you often feel ashamed or anxious but you’re not sure why?
- Do you procrastinate at work, school or in creative pursuits such as writing stories, composing music, drawing, painting or even starting a small business?
- Do you numb out with food, drink, or mindless diversions when you feel uncomfortable or you’re having one of these other thoughts I just listed?
- Finally, if your thoughts and feelings are often external, have you been called a control-freak, a neat-freak or a workaholic?
Do any of those questions apply to you or to someone you know? Do one or two of these questions really jump out at you? Again, don’t try to shield yourself from yourself. Just be honest. In my case, almost all these questions applied to some degree or another. They have ever since I can remember. Ever as a kid I scored very high on the Perfectionist scale.
And look, being a Perfectionist in one or two small areas of your life really can be an asset. It can let you achieve incredible results and accomplish some amazing things. Also, we want doctors to be perfect in how they perform surgery and engineers to be perfect when they design a bridge but those are very defined roles with defined outcomes that have very high stakes.
But when the stakes are not high or the type of thinking that drives you to want to achieve some result makes you feel bad about yourself or you’re having self-judgmental thoughts like thinking you’re not worthy or it causes fear and anxiety then that’s when being a Perfectionist has become a problem and it can really impact your life.
And I know this because I’ve seen all the bad choices I’ve made, all the opportunities I’ve avoided out of fear of stumbling in front of others or showing off my body or truly sharing who I am, even to myself, and how being down on myself all this time has led to several habits and negative thought patterns that had some real consequences in my life.
What’s Wrong With Being a Perfectionist?
So yeah, being a perfectionist has its downsides. Perfectionist thinking and shame can make you feel anxious and depressed. It can make you procrastinate and avoid situations. It’s the root cause of most eating disorders like Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia and Bulimia.
And being a Perfectionist puts constant stress and strain on your life and you won’t see the connection unless you know where to look for it. You don’t feel like you’re being your true self. Being a Perfectionist also makes it nearly impossible to change or start new habits because you’re always trying to hold yourself up to an impossible to meet standard and you’re of course going to fail and feel upset at yourself when you do.
I also want to emphasize that to be a Perfectionist you don’t need to be a neat freak, a control freak or an over-achiever in school, at work or at home. It’s all in how you think about yourself and what you think you should be doing when you’re not doing it or how you think you should look when you don’t look that way or thinking about what others are thinking of you and your actions or what you say.
It’s all mental in how you see yourself. Being a Perfectionist in your mind is how you look at yourself and how you basically try to protect yourself from failure or perceived failure by others. Being a Perfectionist is not just about actions. It’s the world and world view you create in your mind.
Dr Brené Brown
Dr Brené Brown has become one of my most favorite authors. She’s written several wonderful books that I think anyone who believes they might be a Perfectionist should read. She’s written “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly” as well as “I Thought it was just me but it isn’t.”
Brene is a shame researcher at the University of Houston. She’s given several TED talks and speeches and if you have a chance I really recommend you try to check them out on YouTube. Again, she’s an amazing writer and I want to send out my many, many thanks to her now. Her words helped me a great deal when I needed them the most.
Now, I could talk for days about all the different topics that Brené has written and spoken about because they’re all important and they all relate to each other but I want to focus on a few areas that really talk to being a Perfectionist. I’m going to try to summarize what Brené has said in my own words but a lot of what you’re going to here are her words as well. I also want to try to boil it down into concepts that have helped me understand it better. And those are going to be my words.
I hope if Brené ever hears this she won’t come down too hard on me or say I totally missed the point. But you never know! I guess I’m saying I recommend you take some time and read her books on your own and make your own interpretations. These are mine.
Connection, Shame & Perfectionism
So here’s the short version of a very large view on shame and Perfectionism that I borrowed very heavily from Dr Brené Brown.
Need for Connection
It all starts with the need for feeling connection. Bottom-line, we has humans need connection. It’s literally in our DNA and we crave being around others. Love, friendship, communication and being accepted is something we need to survive, it’s not a nice to have. We must have it and we’re always searching for it. An infant craves connection with it’s mother and as we age we crave connection with others in our community.
When we’re around groups of people we feel compelled almost to join in and be like others. Biologically we can trace this need for connection back to our ancestors because they were not capable of surviving alone without the help of others in their tribe. Connection allowed them to work together to help hunt and gather enough food to feed their tribe, to clothe and shelter each other and to protect each other. Connection allowed them to reproduce, raise children and ultimately to create our modern society. They did all of this as a group, not individually.
So that’s the first piece of the puzzle. We each need connection. We don’t feel complete unless we have it and long ago we couldn’t physically survive without it.
We All Feel Shame
The next major point is that in addition to needing to feel connected, every one of us feels shame. Now, the word shame has a lot of connotations in our culture and it’s a hard topic to even talk about but we need to understand shame if we’re going to understand why we’re a Perfectionist.
So shame. Each of us feels shame. It’s a universal feeling. Everyone experiences it. Shame is basically a painful feeling or sensation that we’re flawed somehow. It’s the fear of being unworthy or not belonging.
I’m going to try to paraphrase Brené Brown here and I’m reading this from my notes. Brené says that:
Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable. Shame keeps worthiness away by convincing us that owning our stories will lead to people thinking less of us. It’s all about fear. We’re afraid people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling or even how wonderful we feel when we’re soaring. Shame lurks in body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging and religion. To feel shame is to be human.
Brené talks a little about the possible origin of shame in humans and I’ve done my own research on it myself. This is all a theory but the general consensus is that shame is a sensation that comes from deep within our brains. It’s a part of the limbic system. It comes from the non-verbal, the non-language part of our brain, meaning it’s tough for us to put the feeling into words so we can consciously even understand it.
Another way to think of it is shame, it’s really more like a primal response, just like the flight or fight response we all know about. Fight or flight is an automatic response we all have when we subconsciously feel we’re in danger. You might feel it when you’re getting into a heated argument with someone or when you’re about to get into a car accident or you might feel it when you’re walking alone down a dark street at night and suddenly you hear a noise like someone is walking behind you. Fight or flight is a primal response our lizard brain ignites to heighten our awareness and give us strength to fight or run. Shame is very similar. We almost don’t realize we’re feeling it because it just takes control.
We talked about the universal need for connection and we just described what shame is. So how are they related. Well, there’s a theory that shame is a subconscious response that forces us to function within our group or tribe. The idea is shame evolved as a way to compel our ancestors to fit in with others around them as a survival mechanism. If they didn’t fit in then the group very likely would kick them out. And without the protection of their tribe, our ancestors likely wouldn’t survive long on their own.
In that same vein I’ve read that shame may have also developed as a way to force our ancestors to perform their respective roles within the group. They would feel shame if they didn’t help with collecting food for the day or helping with the child care or the hunting or whatever. Again, if they didn’t do their part or try to fit in then they might get kicked out of the tribe. Shame helped to ensure that they carried their load.
Again, this is all a guess based on various theories and it’s going through my very layman filter but bottom-line, we just need to remember after hearing all this is that shame is a primal response that’s hard to identify.
It’s universal and in the world of psychology and sociology, shame is called the master emotion. It’s a universal fear of being unworthy of love and belonging and like we said, when it comes to connection, we as humans NEED love and connection. And shame, like other negative emotions, you don’t have to experience it to be paralyzed by it. Just the simple fear of being perceived as unworthy is just as bad as feeling unworthy.
Shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders and bullying. Brené says:
In order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and keeping secrets. Some of us move towards by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive and using shame to fight shame. Shame is about fear, blame and disconnection.
I don’t know about you, but just knowing this about shame, I can literally see how shame and the fear of shame controls almost all human behavior. Shame basically makes us act and feel unauthentic and it makes us try to fit in vs being accepted as who we are. And it really does break along gender lines.
For women in most western cultures, shame is probably most strongly felt when it comes to body image. Women feel they are expected to thin and that thinness equals beauty. If a woman feels constant shame over how she looks or how much she weights or how she acts around others then she obviously isn’t being authentic to her true self.
I think Brene summed it up best when she said, “For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat.”
For men in most western cultures, and as a guy I totally agree with this, Brene says that shame is most often felt when it comes to feeling we need to always control our emotions around others, that work and our career should be our lives, that we should strive for status and, thank God this one is dying out, that men should dominate over women.
Yeah, this is how generations of guys have been raised and mostly because they modeled the behavior of their fathers. Bottom-line, for guys, shame means we cannot be seen as weak or vulnerable. Ever.
How Shame Makes The Perfectionist
So where does being a Perfectionist fit in all this?” I know, it’s been a bit of a windy path so far but we’re finally here.
Brené says that:
Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism. When we don’t claim shame, shame claims us. The way it does this is through perfectionism and being a perfectionist.
“Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.” I love that quote and that sums up that relationship between shame and perfectionism perfectly.
Brené says that Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. It’s the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when in fact it’s preventing us from taking flight.
So, at it’s core, Perfectionism is about trying to earn approval and acceptance and avoiding shame.
I want to give you one last quote from Dr Brené Brown. This is her formal definition of Perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement and blame. It’s self destructive because there is no such thing as perfect. It’s unattainable. It’s more about perception — we want to be perceived as perfect. It’s addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. So rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look and do everything just right. Feeling shamed, judged and blamed (and the fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience. Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame. It’s my fault — I’m not good enough.
Brene nailed it. She nailed it, she nailed it, she nailed it! After all the discussion of needing connection and how we experience shame, I think you can really understand how being a Perfectionist leads to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, procrastination and not being able to make permanent changes in our habits like how we eat or in our fitness.
The constant feeling of shame and uncomfortableness and not feeling like we belong can really mess without heads. It’s that uncomfortableness, that anxiety, that constant feeling of stress and not being authentic to ourselves and others around us that makes us want to numb out or ignore those feelings. We escape into eating or drinking or zoning out. That starts to form a habit. It’s the habit loop. To avoid a bad feeling we find something that gives us a short feeling of pleasure and voila, neural pathways are established, completing the habit loop and ensuring it continues.
Unfortunately for us perfectionists, this makes our shame that much stronger because now we’re not just ashamed of ourselves, we’re ashamed of what we did to numb out and now we’re living in fear of doing it again and not feeling like we can control ourselves. The initial shame started the habit and now it a habit that’s wrapped in layers and layers of shame. The perfectionist inside us is freaking out. It wants to keep all this hidden, to keep it in the dark, and we feel even less and less love for ourselves.
Alen’s Perfectionist Story
So how does all this apply to me and why am I talking so much now about being a Perfectionist? It’s like this. I started this podcast back in 2012 because of my own binge eating challenges. I had just entered into recovery after a year’s worth of mindfulness practice plus another 6 months of learning how to better manage the my own response to the addictive voice. After 15 years I finally was able to fully stop binge eating! That was two and a half years ago and I was SOOO happy! But I still struggled with my Perfectionist thoughts and tendencies and 8 months ago things started to go downhill for me.
Health Challenge with Youngest Son
It all really came to a head with a challenge we had with my youngest son. You may already know about my son’s medical condition and the incredible stress that put on our family. It was an event that really rattled me and let the Perfectionist inside me get out of control. You know, at the time, I didn’t recognize it as a Perfectionist problem. I just saw it as unwelcome stress but now when I look back, sure, it was a stressful time, but it was also my Perfectionist coming back out and taking over my life again.
To give you a little history, my youngest is our third child. My wife and I always wanted lots of kids but after we had our first two sons I remember having all these irrational fears of “man, we’ve gotten off lucky having these two healthy boys… I don’t want to tempt fate again.” If you’re a parent maybe you know the feelings of holding your baby and suddenly thinking of the most catastrophic event happening that might hurt or do worse to your baby like a car accident or falling down the steps or whatever. You can be holding your son or daughter and feeling that feeling of deep love when all of the sudden a feeling of terror comes out of nowhere. And it grabs you. It’s almost like you’re punishing yourself for letting yourself feel that type of love. I used to feel that all the time.
Well, when my wife told me we were pregnant for a third time I was thrilled but I was also terrified during her entire pregnancy. Maybe I’m revealing too much here but it’s the truth. I didn’t feel I deserved to have another healthy child and maybe in a way I was just preparing myself and keeping myself from feeling too much joy. This one is really hard for me to explain well and I’m not doing too well with it, I’m sorry. It was just a sensation that really bothered me.
Long story short, at the end of last year when our son was 8 years old he started having massive seizures and lots of little seizures. They just came out of the blue and really rocked his world. The good news is after 2 months we were able to get the seizures under control but my wife and I were a wreck.
And during those 2 months, my mind would constantly flash back to those same feelings I had when we were pregnant with him. I was exhausted but I also kept thinking that this was proof finally that I didn’t deserve to have a healthy son. That I was unworthy of being able to love him. And the perfectionist inside me kept making me imagine what if I was in his situation and thinking how can this little boy deal with this for the rest of his life? This wasn’t the life I wanted for him and I was so angry at myself for having gotten complacent and for even thinking that I felt deserved a healthy child because I didn’t feel I did. I know this doesn’t make sense but it’s how I felt.
Recent Eating Challenges
Also around this same time my eating took a strange turn, again, all due to my inner perfectionist again. I’ve talked about this before but starting the first of last year I’d taken to eating a mostly whole foods diet and I was staying away from processed foods. And it was a good thing… at first. I’d say I was close to eating 90% whole foods and it transformed the way I was feeling. I lost a lot of weight and had more energy than I’d ever had in my entire life. I was feeling awesome. I was running all the time, sleeping great and just feeling on top of the world. I also at the time started followed several podcast and blogs around the topic of eating clean and whole foods.
But the perfectionist inside of me was comparing myself constantly to all these other folks I listened to and read and suddenly I didn’t feel like I was matching up. I wasn’t as whole foods as these folks or I wasn’t running as far or giving up certain food groups like these others folks had done.
In my mind I suddenly wasn’t seeing my progress as progress anymore and instead I was feeling like I was a loser again. So I started to amp it all up and tried to take my 90% whole foods diet to a 100% whole foods diet and I about lost my freakin’ mind. I just couldn’t do it and I was feeling even worse about myself because I wasn’t able to do it.
But all those other people were eating these foods so there must be something wrong with me or what I’m doing, right? I was just so caught up in my own perfectionist thinking and shame spiral that I couldn’t see what I was doing. I was teetering on going down the path of a totally different type of eating disorder and it’s scary to realize just how easy it is to do when you’re letting these types of emotions rule you.
Challenges With Running & Exercise
The third issue I was wrestling with at this time was my fitness. I was running 9 and 10 miles at a time late last year and I was feeling great but then I really hurt my ankle. The pain was making it almost impossible to walk much less run.
I really think I was just pushing myself too hard and I was doing that partly because I wanted to impress others around me. I was always talking to others in my family and to my friends about how many miles I was running because they always asked how it was going and I was proud of my progress. I was also starting to get back down to what what I somewhat looked like when I was in my twenties.
But when I got hurt I couldn’t keep it up. But I enjoyed all the attention and knowing people were proud of me and I didn’t want anyone to think I was a loser and that I couldn’t keep it up so I kept running. The only thing that let me do it was tons of Aleve and Motrin. But then it got so bad I could barely stand in the mornings after I woke up. God, I just felt so ashamed I remember.
You know, last year my big goal for myself this year was to run my first ever marathon. But I couldn’t run or train for it anymore. Part of me was thinking that I couldn’t go back on that goal. So I tried to keep at it. I even backed down on the running and would just try to get in a 2 mile run but even when I’d finish those runs I wasn’t happy with my results. All I could think was “dude, just 2 months ago you were up to 10 miles and now you can barely do 2 miles. You suck.”
I even tried doing my exercise bike for a few hours each day but I never got the same type of workout I got from running and so I’d look at each bike ride as another failure. The cardio was great and it was keeping my legs toned without hurting my ankle but I kept calling myself a failure.
Feelings of Shame – The Funk
So as all this was going on I really just started to feel ashamed of myself again and was in a real funk. Looking back at it, it was the same feeling I’d had when I was binge eating years ago when I was binging almost nightly. How come I was so happy and fit and rocking the world just 6 months earlier but at that time I felt I lost it all? I began to feel just as anxious and depressed as I did when I struggled with my binge eating disorder.
That constant feeling I had, that feeling of shame and not feeling worthy also made me feel like I didn’t deserve to do anything good for myself. I didn’t deserve to buy new clothes or a new pair of shoes but those were just little things.
The big thing that pinched me was I felt I didn’t deserve to take 10 minutes to let my mind relax, or at least just to be mindful. Yeah, I felt I didn’t deserve to just sit with myself so my daily mindfulness habit just dried up. If you’re a long time listener you realize how important mindfulness has been to me. It helps me feel connected to myself and helps to keep those crazy monkey brain emotions from taking over. But somehow I felt I didn’t deserve to feel good so I just stopped doing it altogether. And by that time I really felt like I was back in the prime of my old binge eating days. I wasn’t binge eating but I felt just as upset and bothered. I was not being the person I knew I was.
“Alen The Procrastinator”
And talk about procrastination. Look, I’ll be honest, I’ve always been one of the worse procrastinators. It’s the perfectionist inside me that causes that procrastination. When I don’t quite know how to do something or if I know I can’t do something absolutely right I just tend to put it off. Even something that needs to be done I’ll just ignore it so I don’t have to face the fear of not knowing how to do it or not being able to get it done without another struggle.
So I’m a procrastinator, but late last year and early this year things in that area got super bad. Ask my wife about the low water pressure issue in our house that was causing her to spend an extra 10 to 15 minutes in the shower just to rinse the shampoo and conditioner out of her hair. The pressure was that low everywhere in the house including the kitchen sick and bathroom faucets. This was an issue that went on for months and she was NOT happy with me.
Look, I used to run a mechanical contracting company and I know a thing or two about plumbing and pipefitting. But here it was, my wife was threatening to call a plumber for something I could handle but I couldn’t get myself to do it because it involved some technical troubleshooting and the fact that I needed to borrow some tools from my brother. So yeah, you can imagine the interesting comments my wife would mumble under her breath each night after she took her shower.
But as much as my procrastination was bothering my wife, it was really starting to hurt my company. Over the last year I’ve converted over to becoming more of an app developer vs an IT consultant and late last year I released my first public app. It was a great app launch and I started working on several other apps around the same time. But when everything happened with my son and I started getting all wrapped up with what I ate and my body, I just started procrastinating with everything. Here I was, a new app developer and I wasn’t releasing any new apps! OMG, that was supposed to be the core of my new business model but now I was completely avoiding it. Not exactly the best entrepreneurial move, eh? Yeah!
And a lot of that procrastination was seen in how I had a hard time relaunching my Moment In The Zone podcast earlier this year. Again, I had the best of intentions and the relaunch was my way of trying to force myself through that funk I was in. I’m a guy. Guys just suck it up and drive on, right? I kept thinking I’d invested so much into it that I couldn’t let the investment go to waste. I also kept thinking that not continuing that podast would prove that I was a failure and I didn’t want to reveal to you that I failed in something. I was so worried what other people might think that I couldn’t shut it down. So I just ignored it and let it flounder with no updates at all. And I felt bad about it the whole time.
So you can say late last year and early this year… it all just kind of sucked. I just felt yuck all over but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was going on. I was feeling exactly like I used to feel years ago when I was caught up in my nightly binge eating but this time I wasn’t binge eating… but the feeling was exactly the same!
The “Ah Ha” Moment for Alen
But late last February I had my ah ha moment. I don’t remember what I was exactly doing but I was at my computer thinking about feeling miserable and I suddenly remembered having watched a Brené Brown Ted talk the previous year and I suddenly wanted to watch it again. It was just an old memory but I was feeling more open than I’d been feeling in a long time and I wanted to see it.
So I pulled up her Ted talks and watched. And I watched them again, and again and again. Oh my God, I’d seen these videos the year before but back then when I saw them I really only focused on the word vulnerability. But this time I truly began to understand why shame was so important and how she tied in perfectionism. I felt like such an idiot that I missed all that before but I was so happy to find it finally and to appreciate what she was saying. Maybe I’m a typical guy and I’m just slower than most, I dunno. But I was in awe at her insight. She nailed everything I was feeling.
That morning it dawned on me that I have always run away from shame. I was a guy. Guys aren’t supposed to feel vulnerable, right? I’d been telling myself to suck up the pain, don’t talk about it, get the work done, quit being lazy and quit worrying about things you can’t control. I kept building up my shields and putting on more armor and I told myself that eventually I would win. I guess that’s what they call cognitive dissonance or something? Well, whatever…
So I purchased Brené’s books on Kindle and read them all cover to cover with this new awareness about myself. As I read I was able to think through my life and compared my feelings and memories I had against the feelings and anecdotes that Brené shared and oh my God, I’ve never had such an awakening before. The more I read, the more I realized just how much of a perfectionist I’d always had been even since I was a little kid. How I lived for recognition and praise from my parents, my teachers and especially from the other kids around me. I rarely did things for myself or to just make me happy. I used to feel like I never truly belonged anywhere and I was always trying to fit in.
One of my biggest awakenings while reading her books was really getting to understand what shame was. It let me reflect and learn how to recognize it in myself.
The Primal Shame Response (PSR)
Now Brené doesn’t exactly say that shame is a primal response. That’s me saying it because it helps me to see shame as an old primal reaction. I don’t know about you, but know I don’t want to live or act like people did thousands of years ago. But realizing it’s just a part of being human made it easier to know I could learn how to manage it better. It makes me realize that the shame I feel, it’s not real or based in truth. It comes from a lower part of my brain. It’s not even a conscious thought.
It’s just a response like fight or flight. It’s just a sensation. Granted, it’s one heck of a sensation because once you can recognize that feeling of shame in yourself and you’re able to give it a name you realize just how many of your thoughts are started and driven by that same response. It’s almost scary!
And here’s something else that helps me. I’ve actually given my shame a name. PSR. Primal Shame Response. When I say PSR, it sounds like the word “pisser” so that’s what I’ve come to call it. It’s a little vulgar but it helps me see it that way. It helps to take away some of the power. But really, the hard part was learning to recognize the shame response in the first place because it’s so fast and if I don’t catch it soon enough, it fires up the Perfectionist inside me. So I guess the first and most important lesson was just learning to identify the feelings of shame and the fear of shame and knowing my own unique responses and thoughts to it.
In her books Brené also shares several several practices we can do to help decrease the power that shame has over us. Basically she found that people who practice certain thoughts and behaviors each day are able to become more shame resilient or resistant and can learn to manage the Perfectionist inside us. Again, these practices don’t necessarily reduce the primal shame response because that’s just hard wired into us but they let us better handle it.
Her recommendations include learning to be mindful of shame, practicing gratefulness and learning to be your most authentic self. I want to emphasize that she said that these have to be practiced daily and you know what? She’s exactly right. If you don’t practice them daily you’re just going to stay stuck in your own funk. A shame fueled perfectionist funk. It’s like bathing…. it needs to be done daily to keep from stinking.
Being Mindful of My Shame
So I learned again how to give myself permission to be mindful. And that helped me. Probably the biggest benefit I got from doing that was how I came to see myself and the situation with my son. I still can’t put into into words exactly but just being able to sit with those feelings and not trying to run from them made me realize I’m OK and that he’s OK and we’re going to both get through this together. We can’t be perfect. It’s impossible. Granted, I had to force myself to do this each day and at first it was a little hard to get back into it, but after a week it began to feel good again.
Learning Gratefulness & Practicing
I also made myself practice gratefulness each morning when I woke and when I went to bed at night. When I wake up I’ve trained myself to immediately think back to everything that happened the day before and to try to find something to be grateful for. I then try to think about something I’ll likely be grateful for later that day. Sometimes I just think of my wife, my kids, my friends and all have have in my life.
During the day I also try to show gratefulness to at least one person. I might keep it simple and say something to my wife or kids or to tell something to a complete stranger. Mostly though I keep it within the family or for my friends. But just that little act of expressing gratefulness to someone or doing something for someone else that’s unexpected makes my whole day now. Yeah, some days I don’t get to do exactly what I want to do with it but as long as I try I think is all that matters.
And all this new awareness helped me a ton with my fitness and my eating. I realized that I needed to be thankful for having what I had in terms of health and that I didn’t need to be like everyone else. I let myself go back to what I had been eating a year earlier and made sure I didn’t let the Perfectionist try to make me feel guilty about not being 100% whole foods. I let my ankle physically heal by not walking or running for 2 months. I’m just now starting to run a little bit again and I’m OK with each little bit of progress.
Being My Most Authentic Self
Something that’s really blown me away was learning how to finally be authentic. It was super hard at first and it’s been happening very slowly. I don’t want to bore you with the details but just being authentic with myself and others has helped me manage the people pleasing side of my Perfectionist personality. I’m.. I’m actually starting to finally feel like the person I know I’ve always been but haven’t let myself be. I know that sounds funny but when you feel like you’ve been wearing a mask all your life and doing things to try to fit in or because someone else expects something of you I bet you understand exactly what I mean. It’s scary a little and I still struggle with it but I’m making decisions to only do what feels right for me in my life.
For instance, the last podcast where I decided to change the name of the show and call it Progress Not Perfection. That’s me learning to be me and to not get caught up with a bunch of best practices or worrying what others think I should be doing. Life is too short to wear a mask and to not be yourself.
And my decision to announce that I wasn’t going to continue Moment In The Zone came from me deciding to be my most authentic self. Moment In The Zone, I truly believe was a great concept but it just wasn’t me. This podcast that you’re listening to right now, this is me and this is what I want to talk about. I understand now that Moment In The Zone was simply a misstep on my journey and I’ve learned a ton from doing it. But most of all I’m not ashamed and I’m not hiding from it. I’m owning it and it feels great.
Trying to Stop Procrastinating
And my issue with procrastination and getting caught up in the weeds and making things more complex than they really need to be… It’s come a long, long ways. For me I’m learning how to work through those feelings I get when I’m facing a project that needs to be done. There are a ton of little tricks I do to help myself get through them now but one of them that’s really helped me is learning to be OK with work that’s 75 to 80% complete. I’m basically giving myself permission to be imperfect… and I feel some much freer now! Obviously it helps me get things done quicker but most important, it’s taking away the shame and guilt I used to feel when I worried about things I needed to do but I was avoiding.
Another thing that’s helped me out with my procrastination and perfectionism is I’ve opened up and shared my struggles with two very good friends. So whenever I’m starting to feel stuck or I’m telling myself stories in my head like “what if they don’t like it” or I start playing out worse case scenarios I can call either of those guys and just talk. They struggle with the same thing and they sit with me on the phone. They don’t judge, they don’t offer advice, they just sit and listen and help make observations or point out things when I’m seeing them incorrectly.
I tell you, I would have never felt OK to just talk with another guy about these fears and concerns but I finally got over that after realizing that Brené was right. I needed to let more folks in and I need to share my vulnerabilities in order to be and feel connected and to remove the power that my shame was holding over me. When I finally made that step, and yes, as a guy it almost scared the crap out of me to have those conversations with someone else, I could almost physically feel huge pieces of my armor dropping off my body. I was finally able to move again and start to be my true self.
And it’s not just with these guys but I’ve learned to talk far more openly with my mom and my wife when I feel stuck or ashamed or I’m catching myself spinning my Perfectionist wheels. It’s been the most amazing experience and it’s helped me stay out of the dark places in my mind. And it’s helped me realize it’s not just me and that it’s OK to have these feelings… just don’t hold them in and let them paralyze you.
And yeah, speaking of my wife, I finally took a whole Sunday afternoon and I fixed all the water pressure issues in our house. Done. And my wife loved me for it! Guys, it’s true. If a lady doesn’t find you handsome she should at least find you handy, or rich. My wife keeps telling me either is good but she says she’ll settle for handy. I’ll take it!
Getting Better But I Still Struggle
So yes, the last 3, almost 4 months have been an awakening and each day is getting a little better than the last. But I want to make something clear… I STILL experience those primal shame responses on a daily basis. Some days I really struggle with them and find myself thinking like a Perfectionist again and I can feel myself slipping a bit.
- I still find it super hard to ask for help from others and admitting I have a problem with something. I almost feel ashamed just asking for help.
- I also have an incredibly hard time dealing with feedback or receiving any type of judgement from others. When I do I almost want to immediately stop what I’m doing and try to make that person happy or I want to prove them wrong. I almost can’t drop it.
- Or for my business or for my personal goals, I often find myself wanting to tell others that things are going great on a project or to exaggerate my progress because I’m afraid if I tell them the truth that they’ll think less of me and my abilities.
- I also tend to immediately think I’m not expert enough or good enough to do certain things for clients when I know I am.
- Ah, here’s a good one. When I walk down the street I still feel everyone is watching me and they’re thinking unkind thoughts about my appearance or they simply don’t like me when they look at me. Yeah, that’s a tough one still.
- And finally, it’s still very hard for me to feel like I can give myself permission to relax and enjoy little moments, especially when I’m thinking of all the things I need to be doing. Even if I can’t do the work I’m always thinking about it. And the more I think about it, the more I find myself coming up with ways to figure out how to put it off or how I could avoid it.
I could go on and on but these are the thoughts and feelings that still go through my mind. Maybe you feel some of these same emotions or you often react the same way when you’re in these situations.
But the difference between myself today and myself 4 months ago is I can recognize these feelings and thoughts much earlier in the process and I can mostly keep them from growing beyond just the initial seed phase and not into a full blown thought and belief in my mind. 4 months ago I’d have quickly let any of those thoughts engulf me. I can now mostly challenge those thoughts and keep myself from falling back down the hole.
Also the difference between me today and me 4 months ago is I’ve been building up my resilience by forcing myself to practice mindfulness and gratefulness and each day to review myself. Instead of running from the shame, I’m learning to turn it around in my mind and to look right at it and to challenge it. But it’s still not comfortable. So yes, even though I continue to feel these little flashes of shame, I’m learning how to not let them get bigger or to take over my thoughts. I’m still in the early stages of my recovery with this but I’m starting to feel good again.
Perfectionism is what caused me to start binge eating and it’s what kept me there for 15 years. Perfectionism, it grabbed me again 8 months ago and though I wasn’t binge eating, what it did to me in my mind was just as bad. I’m fighting back again and I’m slowly gaining ground. Being a perfectionist is tough.
Conclusion on Perfectionism & Shame
I guess I want to finish by saying that shame may be the master emotion but perfectionism is the master mental reflex. They drive our actions and control our thoughts almost subconsciously.
As Perfectionists, we’re making our burdens heavier and heavier each day. We’re putting on a new layer of armor each time we feel shame or we’re afraid of feeling shame and it’s rubbing us raw. It chaffs and we’re going to develop more sores under that armor. Those sores will eventually get infected because we can’t see and we’ll just get sicker and weaker.
So, of course, as Perfectionists, we don’t just keep our armor on, we double it up and we think it’s the only way we can protect and heal ourselves. But it’s not. Being a Perfectionist hides our true selves from ourselves and it keeps us from truly connecting and being. Instead we’re just fitting in, we faking our way through life, we’re hustling, we’re not being authentic and we’re not being wholehearted.
That perfectionist shield, it’s a false sense of security, but it’s one we naturally gravitate towards. We don’t understand that it’s that primal shame response and our fear of shame that’s driving us. That PSR, that primal shame response, that pisser, it’s something we need to learn how to recognize and to better manage. We need to start and we need to keep up our daily habits of practicing mindfulness and gratefulness. We have to learn to love and accept ourselves for who we are now, not who we could be later.
Bottom-line, we have to be authentic and real. We have to be ourselves. We need to face our shame and stop fearing it. It has to come out of the dark. And like Dr Brené Brown says, we have to believe that we are enough and that we belong.
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- Brené Brown’s Blog and Website: brenebrown.com
- Recommended Brené Brown books on Amazon:
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
- The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
- I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”
- Brené Brown’s TED Talks:
Updates & Housekeeping
- Many thanks to my graphic artist Britt Brown for her amazing work on my pdocast coverart and my new PnPDaily blog header. I love it! If you’re looking for a graphic design artist then email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Legal and Disclaimers
- The Progress Not Perfection is produced and recorded by Alen Standish. All rights are reserved by Standish Media LLC.
- The host of Progress Not Perfection is not a doctor or a trained therapist and can’t offer personal counseling or medical advice. The opinions and advice of this podcast, website, guests, emails, apps, newsletters or anything or anyone else heard here are based on personal experiences and are not intended to replace the services of trained health professionals.
- Music was provided by Broke for Free at brokeforfree.com. Tracks include Blown Out from their Leaf album and Something Elated from their Something album.