Perfectionism is a familiar affliction for survivors.
So many of us strive to achieve top grades and performance reviews, to dress just right for every occasion, and master the social skills that help us appear naturally confident. All the while, we’re scared to death of letting the mask slip to reveal our secret: the shame we carry as a byproduct of sexual abuse or assault.
At its root, perfectionism is often an unconscious attempt to cover up shame.
Sexual abuse creates insidious damage by instilling a sense of shame in its victims that seeps into our deepest sense of self. Shame keeps victims silent, effectively protecting both the abuser and the secret. It’s an arrangement that sacrifices survivors’ self-esteem and leaves us with a crippling emotional burden.
Perfectionism is a coping mechanism. Subconsciously, we think that if we just do everything right, we may be able to hide the stain of our shame from the rest of the world. But like all maladaptive coping mechanisms, perfectionism hurts as much as it helps. Rooted in understandable fears, it’s a never-ending scramble to cover up our negative beliefs about ourselves. Sadly, it fails to accomplish even that.
Shame was at work when, at the age of eight, I lost my fight to hold back tears as I stood in the school office and fessed up that I’d forgotten my lunch money once again. My disgrace was out of proportion and I can still recall my fear as I risked the office ladies’ disapproval. Even their kind reassurances did not soothe my misery, as I knew I’d probably be back within the week and their patience with me would surely grow thin. Even worse, my mistakes would continue to out me as irresponsible and bad.
Looking back with an adult’s perspective, I now know that my frequent forgetting during those tender years was a symptom of the sexual abuse I was experiencing. Like many victims of trauma, the emotional impact interfered with my working memory. But back then, I just thought I was hopelessly flawed. My mistakes added to my already deep sense of shame.
Shame contributed to a fear of public speaking that got so bad in college I skipped class just to avoid delivering a presentation for which I was more than prepared. I’d invested hours polishing this particular paper for my Shakespeare class until I was confident it was A+ worthy. Alone in my studio apartment beforehand, I lined up my stuffed animals on the couch and imagined they were my confident, intelligent classmates while I presented my analysis of morality in Hamlet. Despite all this, I grew increasingly frightened as the moment of truth approached. Walking to school with the typed paper in my backpack and a stack of index cards, I reached the classroom building and, my heart pounding, felt my legs carry me right past the double doors and down the street. It seemed I was powerless to stop myself from fleeing a situation that felt too dangerous to even try. I just couldn’t risk making a fool of myself. Of course I ended up feeling ashamed that I couldn’t go through with a basic course requirement. Clearly, I was far from perfect.
Shame caused me to obsess so much over the details of my oldest child’s third birthday party, I lost sleep the night before worrying whether my hostess skills were good enough to impress my mom-friends. It’s embarrassing to admit that I actually lay in bed wondering whether I’d put too much mayonnaise in the homemade chicken salad. Thankfully, my restless night was a wake-up call. It spurred me to realize my perfectionist tendencies were getting in the way of focusing on what really mattered: my daughter’s happiness on her special day. It probably wasn’t so great for my friends either–they might have felt pressured to match my lunch spread at their kids’ next birthday or risk being judged on their party skills. So, it was empathy that helped me start to ease up on my perfectionist ways. That and many years of work combatting the shame I carried as a result of abuse.
There’s nothing wrong with pushing ourselves to excel and pursue our goals. But we can’t be perfect. And the drive to try creates anxiety and prevents us from enjoying life’s pleasures, large and small. Rather than motivating us to be our best, perfectionism seeks to cover up what we see as our worst.
The good news is that we can overcome perfectionism, as well as debilitating shame. The work starts with an exploration of our trauma and how it affected us. For some, we also need to look at family (and other) attitudes that told us we are bad and unworthy. Understanding these personal forces helps us begin to lessen their power. We can replace them with more positive beliefs and life experiences that contribute to a far healthier self-concept, and the knowledge that we are worthy of kindness, respect, and genuine love. Accepting nothing less is one of the most significant ways we protect and take care of ourselves.
Which creates a happier, healthier way to live. And there’s no shame in that.