How to Shift the Downward Spiral of Shame, Perfectionism, and "Fitting In" So You Can Truly Belong

I’ve been reflecting on Dr. Brene Brown’s work from her latest book Atlas of the Heart, particularly around the interplay of perfectionism and shame, and how that negatively impacts belonging.

Reflecting back, I think I was pretty authentically myself until high school.  Having come from a very small parochial school with only 15 kids in my class, it felt safe to be me.  I specifically recall when that stopped, which was almost immediately after entering high school.  In order to “fit in” within the new culture with which I was faced, I worked hard at being who I thought I was supposed to be and being less of who I really was/am.

It’s heartbreaking to look back and see how my younger self got lost.  Especially because no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t fit in.  The less she fit in, the harder she tried to be perfectly what she thought she was supposed to be and in turn, the less she fit in.  To say this cycle had a long term impact is a vast understatement.  Fast forward 10 years to a young adult who had completely lost touch with herself, still trying to fit in but it never quite working and her not understanding why.  It’s no wonder depression and anxiety surfaced.

 This cycle is something Brene Brown talks about in her work.  More specifically she talks about how shame and perfectionism go together - wherever perfectionism is, shame is always nearby.

I can attest to that for sure.  I also found that the more perfect I tried to become, the less authentic I was, and thus the less relatable I was - there was nothing for people to plug into - so the less true friends I had.  And then felt like I was bad, trying harder and harder to be perfect to gain their approval, but missing the mark more and more.

I experience this pattern that Brene Brown describes to be a big downward spiral of seeking acceptance and approval (thus attempting to avoid shame, blame, and judgement) through perfectionism, which results in not belonging with our own selves such that we can’t belong with others.  In turn, we end up feeling the way we tried so hard to avoid - shame and rejection.  But instead of accurately seeing our perfectionism and thus lack of authenticity as the culprit, we assume we just weren’t perfect enough.  The cycle continues as we work harder and harder to be something we’re not so we can fit in, and all the while true belonging escapes us.

This can be such a miserable cycle that so many of us find ourselves in.  So what do we do instead?

Here are some of the things I have found helped me.

First and foremost, we need to find a way to accept (and eventually love) ourselves as we are.  That doesn’t mean being complacent or continuing to act badly (i.e., in ways out of alignment with our values).  Instead, it means starting where we are.

One of my favorite quotes comes to us from psychologist Carl Jung:

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

What this means to me is that while it may see counterintuitive, in order to evolve into who and how you want to be, you must start by accepting yourself fully and completely in this moment.  Part of this is holding yourself with a sense of generosity about mistakes you have made and things you have done that were out of alignment with your values.  It’s only from this place of self-compassion that you can reflect on what didn’t work and shift to try something else.  Growth comes from compassion, not shame.

To me, this means embracing what Carol Dweck calls the “Growth Mindset”.  Briefly, the Growth Mindset is believing that you can do almost anything with enough effort and practice.  It means understanding that mistakes are learning opportunities for growth and change.  And to me, it means being kind and compassionate towards yourself.  Because just like almost everyone else, you likely get up every day and do the best you can with the inner and outer resources available to you.

Yep, that last statement is a big one and may require a mindset shift.  I will tell you that as a therapist, that mindset shift has helped me have compassion for myself and others so that we can all learn and grow together.  The alternative is shame and blame and growth can’t happen from those places.  Neither can connection.  So while it took some time and practice (and observation of others), I realized that it is true that almost everyone gets up every day and truly does the best they know how at the time.  This includes you. 

As you shift your beliefs in this way, and see efforts that don’t work the way you intended as opportunities for learning and growth, you will be able to be authentic inside of yourself.  You will belong with yourself.  And when you belong with yourself, there is no where you can’t feel that sense of belonging since it is always within you.  That inner sense of belonging allows us to show up authentically, sharing some of the uniqueness of who we are.  When we show up authentically, people are able to “plug in” to us because it feels safe and true.  And that allows us to truly belong - to be accepted for who we are.

For sure, this takes time, energy, and effort to do the work.  As I continue to practice these skills and work through the layers of my being, I continue to be amazed at how fulfilling it can be to connect in this way - sharing our authentic selves with people who have “earned the right to hear our story” as Brene Brown suggests (i.e., people who are psychologically safe for us in psychologically safe spaces).

This work is hard.  And to truly belong, it’s totally worth it.

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