The Birthplace of Perfectionism: Shame

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“When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver” – Brené Brown

This weekend I hosted a free community workshop on “What Is Shame Resiliency?” In advertising this introductory workshop I got more than a few confused looks and “that’s-not-for-me” averted gazes. Sometimes I forget that folks not in my crowd often: A) have no idea what I’m talking about, or B) are not ready to hear the word “shame” in the title of a workshop that they would attend… by choice…on a Saturday.

So I wanted to take the opportunity to explain why shame is an integral part of the work I do as The Imperfectionista. For many, talking about perfectionism is much more comfortable than talking about shame. However talking about perfectionism without discussing shame is like talking about the cycle of life without talking about sex. The one is a foundational element for the other, and even though it can be uncomfortable subject matter (both shame and sex), skipping over it or pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t helpful. In my professional career I have studied the research of Brené Brown and find a great deal of inspiration from her work. As Brené says, “Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.”

SHAME is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Let’s water this down a bit. Shame is essentially an interpretation of our experiences that provides us with the message “I am bad.” In effort to cope with these messages we use perfectionist behaviors to avoid feeling this way. For example, if I can live perfect/look perfect/be perfect then I will be enough and I can avoid feeling bad.

Ah, but herein lies the trap. Perfectionism is a myth. No one is perfect. We all have flaws and we all make mistakes. It is part of our humanity. (A beautiful part in my opinion.) So inevitably we fail at being perfect, and then start the cycle over again.

I fail at being perfect —> therefore I am not enough (shame) —> to combat this feeling of “not enough” I try to be more perfect —> however perfection is unattainable, so I fail at being perfect… and you can see how we are back at the beginning!




In order to get out of the dangerous and addictive cycle of perfectionism it is imperative to address shame. Shame can be difficult to talk about, and often a topic of conversation where many of us don’t have a lot of experience sharing our shame or even a language in which we know how to share our shame. I have had people tell me, “well I just don’t experience shame.” While it is possible, it ‘s usually not the case. Shame is a universal human emotion. The only folks who don’t experience shame are those who don’t have the capacity for human connection…. So if you think you don’t experience shame, think again…. Or check that you’re not a sociopath.

Connection is why we are here; it gives purpose and meaning to our lives. In her 2010 TED talk Brené Brown tells us “Shame is easily understood as the fear of disconnection.” When we use perfectionism to avoid this fear coming true we don’t get the chance to show up as our authentic self, thus denying ourselves a chance to be seen and accepted as we are. Perfectionism destroys our opportunity for connection. It pins us down in unworthiness.

The work I do can really be boiled down to moving from a place of “not enough” to “enough.” It is not about avoiding shame, it is about learning how to cope with shame and move through it so that it doesn’t have a hold over us. That is the purpose of building resiliency around shame, and letting go of our perfectionist behaviors. I challenge you to try it; break out of the shame mold and say it with me: “I am enough.”

 “I am enough.”

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Showing 4 comments

  • Susan Jepen

    Katie, So beautifully written!!!!! The endless cycles of suffering and repeating the suffering can only be stopped by self realization of who we are what we are and our humanity towards others. Your work is so intriguing to me as I see so many similarities to Buddhist beliefs and practices. The workshop on Saturday will be wonderful.

    • Katie

      Thank you Susan!!

  • Aviya

    This is such a great piece about how without thinking we all can get stuck in a continuous rut and never come out feeling as if we alone am enough.

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