Why Should You Read This?
The author Brené Brown argues that perfectionism isn’t about the drive for excellence or self-improvement. Rather, it is a self-imposed weight around our neck that stymies many of life’s joys. She argues It masquerades as something positive but comes from shame, fear, and vulnerability.
Her insight came from observing people who led amazing and fulfilling lives, despite being “imperfect.” She calls them wholehearted individuals– living life with their whole hearts.
As a psychology professor, Brown’s research centered around courage, worthiness, shame, vulnerability, and empathy. While conducting thousands of personal interviews, she found an anomalous group of people who led amazing, productive, and inspiring lives. This, despite having major obstacles of shame, vulnerability, and fear always present.
She was amazed at their resilience and wanted to know what made them tick.
She sifted through the data to find out what these folks did and not do. Notably, the wholehearted focus on worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude, and creativity. They don’t emphasize perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, being judgmental, and scarcity.
Inspired by what she found, this book describes her journey overcoming obstacles to becoming a wholehearted individual.
By sharing her personal stories and observations, Brown asks us to think about what makes life worthwhile
As such, the book is more in a memoir-ish style vs. how-to. So, if that style is appealing, then this book is for you. Else, other books dealing with perfectionism, such as the CBT Workbook for Perfectionism, Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, or the others in my reviews are a better fit.
Epiphany When You Find What You’re Doing is Wrong
When Brown first investigated these wholehearted individuals, she was seeking validation. She wanted confirmation that her lifestyle was going to align with what wholehearted folks do. Specifically, she did the following:
- Working hard
- Following the rules
- Doing it until she got it right
- Always trying to know herself better
- Raising kids exactly by the book
Unfortunately, what she found instead, was that she was doing everything wrong or as she puts it,
I’m living straight down the shit list.
To be fair, Brown is a bit dramatic here. It isn’t that the wholehearted don’t do the above. They temper their approach. She writes:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I’m imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.
In other words, if we don’t succeed in doing everything on the to-do list, that doesn’t mean we’re a failure.
Why is this viewpoint critical? Perfectionists tend to have an all or nothing bias. If we don’t set out to do all that we said we are going to do, then we are failures. Partial credit is not rewarded. Effort is not enough. Unfortunately, the result for a perfectionist is often constant disappointment and dissatisfaction, especially since they set high standards.
Or, as Brown puts it,
Perfectionism didn’t lead to results. It led to peanut butter.
The point is wholehearted individuals face the same challenges as perfectionists. The difference is how they handle the situations.
Shame Lies at the Root of Perfectionism
Brown argues that where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. She claims that shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.
So to address perfectionism effectively, we know shame’s role in it and build resilience against it.
Fundamentally, Brown argues:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, 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 the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manner, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports.) Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused- How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused- What will they think?
To overcome perfectionism, we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to the universal experiences of shame, judgment, and blame; develop shame resilience; and practice self-compassion.
By calling out shame, we take away its power. Thus, making significant progress against perfectionism.
Things that Get in the Way
Recognizing shame is involved is the first step, but as Brown states there are still some challenges along the way:
…. I’ve never seen any evidence of “how-to” working without talking about the things that get in the way.
We have more access to information, more books, and more good science- why are we struggling like never before? Because we don’t talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best for us, our children, our families, our organizations, and our communities.
As the quotes show, we do not lack for what to do. But we need to identify and remove the blockers before we can put any solution in place.
Shame plays a major role in getting in the way of wholeheartedness. But it doesn’t operate alone. It relies on fear, blame, and disconnection. So, if we want to live fully, without the fear of not being enough, then we have to own our story. To do that, we have to recognize how shame alters our true narrative so we can react with intention.
Examples of how shame influences our behavior by making us:
- Move away– withdrawing, hiding, silencing true selves, keeping secrets
- Move towards – seeking appeasement, pleasing others
- Move against – gaining power over others by being aggressive or using shame to fight shame
As shame’s power comes from secrecy and avoidance, bringing it into the light weakens its power.
What Dampens the Dark Dims the Light – Addressing Vulnerability
Wholehearted individuals are strong in their ability to acknowledge their vulnerability. As Brown states:
We’re afraid to lose what we love the most, and we hate that there are no guarantees. We think not being grateful and not feeling joy, will make it hurt less. We think if we can beat vulnerability to the punch by imaging loss, we’ll suffer less. We’re wrong. There is one guarantee: If we’re not practicing gratitude and not allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times.
As an example, Brown describes how she would often downplay exciting upcoming opportunities. She would tell her friends and colleagues that they weren’t big deals – this, despite being inwardly excited. She reasoned that if she didn’t get it, she wouldn’t be so disappointed or embarrassed.
The problem was when she did get the opportunity, the excitement wasn’t as high. She dampened it down so much the thrill wasn’t there. And when she didn’t get it, the pain was still there but worse. Because she had so downplayed the importance of the opportunity, no one sympathized.
All this because she didn’t want to be so vulnerable to disappointment. Furthermore, her research found that when we try to numb the dark, we also numb the light.
For many of us, our first response to vulnerability and the pain of these sharp points is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away. We do that by numbing and taking the edge off the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief. We can anesthetize with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet.
What Brown observed was wholehearted people aren’t immune to numbing. Rather they have a different coping mechanism for high-vulnerability experiences. Specifically, they cultivate joy and gratitude among others.
Unfortunately, Brown doesn’t define joy aside from it being tied to spirit and gratitude. And her definition of gratitude is somewhat limited. Primarily it’s about practicing being grateful.
My interpretation is appreciate the successes when they do happen. Simply enjoy the moment. Recognize the achievement and celebrate the win.
Not only that, playing down our present successes to lower “potential” future disappointment isn’t fair. It just undervalues the win. This is not about humility. If you’re a perfectionist, you need to remember these wins. These help us move forward as we’re biased to recall and weigh the failures more strongly. These successes remind us we can make it.
Along with our fear of vulnerability is the fear of the unknown, specifically dealing with uncertainty. When we don’t know, we become scared of taking a misstep and fail to take action. We procrastinate since we want to eliminate the uncertainty. But unfortunately, uncertainty can never be zero. One can’t know what is missing by definition- it’s unknown. So, we are caught in an endless loop.
Brown states that the wholehearted are not anxiety-free nor anxiety-averse. They are anxiety-aware. They accept that uncertainty will always be there. But they deal with it by cultivating calm and stillness.
In short, they recognize becoming more anxious doesn’t reduce the uncertainty. Nor does it stop bad things from happening. So, the wholehearted believe, “We’re all doing the best we can,” and if things happen, they happen. You can prepare for it, but at some point, you must bite the bullet and move on. This is why hope and developing shame resilience are essential.
Developing Shame Resilience
Brown’s examination of wholehearted individuals revealed a high level of shame resilience. Major things they do are:
- Understanding shame and recognizing when they are experiencing it.
- Practicing critical self-awareness by reality-checking the messages associated with the shame.
- Reaching out and sharing their shame stories with people they trust. This avoids numbing and takes the edge off vulnerability, discomfort, and pain.
- Speaking to the shame, talking about how they are feeling, and asking for what they need. By confronting and exposing shame, Brown says this weakens its impact on us. We are then in a better position to address the underlying causes.
So, by emulating the above, the critical steps to developing shame resilience are:
- Recognizing situations that trigger and are associated with shame.
- Moving through the response to shame while retaining compassion and authenticity.
- Developing courage, compassion, and connection
This last bullet captures another 3 critical elements of wholehearted living:
- Courage to face the fears that scare us.
- Connection to ask others for help when we feel
- Compassion to accept that we are imperfect and acknowledge that we’re doing the best we can. This is more productive than being self-critical on what we thinkwe should be doing.
By practicing all three steps, we are in a stronger position to deal with shame as we are now able to
- Name it
- Talk about it
- Own the story
- Tell the story
Doing the above helps us develop high shame resilience. We disempower shame’s influence over us.
Hope Compliments Shame Resilience
To compliment shame resilience, Brown also advocates cultivating hope.
She defines hope as a state of mind which involves:
- Setting realistic goals
- Figuring out how to achieve these goals while being flexible
- Believing in our ability to achieve these goals
Hope is important because there are two contradictory common views in modern society. One is the expectation that everything should be fun, fast, and easy. The drawback is when we experience something difficult, thereby taking time and effort, we think, “This was supposed to be easy. But because it’s hard I’m must not be very good at it.” Hopeful talk, by contrast, recognizes, “This is tough, but you can get through it.”
The second view is everything worthwhile must involve pain and suffering- i.e., “No pain. No gain.” So, if it is fun and easy, it’s probably not worthwhile.
The result is a catch-22. If it’s easy for us, then it must not be essential. If it’s too hard, then we suck.
Hopeful thinking is accepting some worthy endeavors will be challenging, time-consuming, and not enjoyable at all. And just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast, and easy doesn’t make it any less valuable than a difficult pursuit. To cultivate hopefulness is to develop flexibility and have perseverance. At its core, hope is about developing a tolerance for disappointment and building up determination and strong self-belief.
Along with shame resilience, hope combats the negatives perfectionism creates.
Cons: Gaps & Issues
As said earlier, this book is not a how-to but more of an author’s revelation. Brown won’t tell you the specifics of what you need to do. Instead, she shares her thoughts and experiences to get you to reflect on them for your situation.
So, if you’re looking for action, then the other books, Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, CBT Workbook, When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, or How to be an Imperfectionist, are more relevant.
Another issue is the book’s organization is fragmented. This made writing this review challenging. Brown’s ideas tend to scatter across many chapters rather than being captured in a single section.
So, if reading this book, you get a stream of consciousness vibe, you’re not alone. As said earlier, the writing is more memoir-ish compared to a regular self-help book.
The book’s value comes from Brown sharing her struggles with shame, vulnerability, and fears and learning the roles they play in perfectionism. She makes a strong case that perfectionism is not the drive for excellence or self-improvement. And that unless you address the underlying causes, it’s challenging to make progress and be wholehearted.
Wholeheartedness recognizes that we are imperfect. And rather than lamenting over who we should be, genuinely accepting who we are. This includes admitting our fears, faults, vulnerabilities, and making the most of them. To do this requires us to be more self-compassionate and acknowledge that we are often doing the best we can.
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