Barbara Fish Counselling Services ... helping your life work


Helping Your Life Work

Volume 9, Issue 6

June 2013

Dear Reader,

Here is another entry in my guest series for this year. Colleague and officemate Isabel Shessel has specialized in the field of mental health and disabilities for more than thirty years. She worked at Seneca College for 21 years providing counseling and assessment services. For the past three years she has been in private practice. She has published articles on the impact of living with learning disabilities.

Many of us fight demons about "who we think we should be" and we hold ourselves up to some pretty impossible standards. We have come to believe that we have to be a certain way, act a certain way, and accomplish certain tasks in order to be judged worthy by others. We try to "fit in" and "belong" and often use the terms interchangeably. But according to Brene Brown, author of The Gift of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, the two terms have different meanings. 'Fitting in' refers to knowing what to do, what to wear, how to make people happy - in other words how to change ourselves in order to be accepted by others. 'Belonging,' on the other hand, does not require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.

Brown has developed a meaningful definition of perfectionism:

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 if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It is a shield. (Brown, loc 1029)

According to Brown, such beliefs lead to something she calls "life-paralysis" (Brown, loc 1029). This definition suggests that we miss out on many experiences and opportunities because we are just too afraid of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. This desire to achieve perfection often leads to self-blame. How many times have you said to yourself that something is your fault, or something happened because you are just not good enough? Think of those powerful words "if only" and "when I ... then." Or those other equally negative words "I should have," as though we have some mystical power of controlling how life unfolds. Self-blame can be debilitating and may lead to more serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Fear of failure holds many of us back from learning to appreciate ourselves for who we are.

Another concept that develops from self-blame is shame. It is a term that is not often understood. It is the feeling that "washes over us" and makes us feel small, somehow defective, not good enough. We, in fact, see ourselves as the opposite of that perfection which many of us constantly strive for. However, there is no such thing as perfection. It is an unattainable goal. We are imperfect, and so is everything else in the natural world! So why do we expend so much energy trying to reach an unattainable goal?

Brown spends a considerable amount of time in her book discussing what gets in the way of our learning to accept and love ourselves for who we are. It is the negative thinking of shame and blame that get in the way of self-acceptance. It is also important to remember that to give up the quest for perfection (much like the Man of LaMancha) we can begin to direct our energy towards personal growth and healthy achievement of reasonable, meaningful goals.

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”

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