Author: Taylor Goetz
“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is 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. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” -Brene Brown
Perfectionism is a shield. A shield many are so close with we are unaware of its weight as we carry it to our jobs, homes, schools, relationships, etc. As I thought about the above quote, I envisioned what my shield looks like. The first thing that came to mind was a big, gold, diamond metal looking object with dents, scratches, and rust covering it. At the top, it says in bold lettering “DON’T WORRY, I’LL PROTECT YOU!”
Protect me from what? Well, a long list of things that I don’t want others seeing. What if my classmates see that I am struggling with that project? What if my coworkers see that I am stressed and things at home feel like a mess right now? What if my partner sees that I am sad, and struggling to make it through the day? Essentially, my shield protects me from being seen. It protects me from connecting with others. It protects me from feeling vulnerable. It protects me from simply being me. My shield has been working very hard. I wonder if yours has been too….
Perfectionism can be defined as “absolute flawlessness” (Frost et al., 1990). This lays out a very binary way to measure one’s worth and accomplishments. One is either perfect or imperfect; flawless or flawed. Perfectionism sets an unreasonable standard and way of life that is impossible to achieve. These perfectionist tendencies can often derive from perceived threats to ones’ self-worth, from either themselves or others, if standards are not met (Flett & Hewitt, 2002). The problem? Nobody is 'perfect', and all will fall short of living life ‘perfectly’. So, the solution to protecting one's vulnerability with a shield of perfectionism, then, becomes a problem.
What do we do when our shield is preventing us from living out a true and authentic life? This is not a one size fits all approach, but I’ll share what has helped me and others I have connected with who are tired carrying the weight of their shield.
The simple step of acknowledging that you may be carrying a shield is important! Get to know your shield. What is it protecting you from? Are you holding yourself to unobtainable standards? What purpose is the shield serving for you?
Draw it out! What does your shield look like? What does it say? Is it big or small? Externalizing the shield and giving it its own persona through art is an awesome way to acknowledge it with meaning, intention, and curiosity.
Find someone you feel comfortable with to talk with about your shield. This may be a partner, friend, pet, anyone! In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown suggests writing down the names of 4 people whose thoughts/opinions/concerns you value and carrying this list with you. Take time to consider who in your life would fit on this list and reach out to them. If you can’t think of anyone you feel comfortable with, a therapist may be a good option for you to explore!
Being ‘perfect’ is exhausting, unobtainable, and inauthentic. It is a shield that serves a purpose in protecting us, but disconnects us from being seen, heard, loved, appreciated, and authentically connected with others for who we are; flaws and all. What if the most meaningful moments lie in acknowledging the imperfections and owning them for what they are? While it may seem scary to lean into this process, I can imagine the benefits of living a true and authentic life outweigh the burden of carrying the shield.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Hard conversations. Whole hearts. New York: Random House.
Frost, R. O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449–468.
Hewitt, P. L. (Eds.). (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definition, and treatment issues. Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 5–31). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.