At times, UCSD can become singly focused on reaching high standards of research or education. These reputable results are more visible than some of the costs individuals incur while trying to be “perfect”.
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and a visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a Masters in Social Work and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social Work from the University of Houston.
Over her career, she authored over a dozen books that explore the complex and interwoven subjects of shame, connection, vulnerability, empathy, leadership, courage, perfectionism, creativity and belonging. These fields of study, with an emphasis on qualitative research, have been her focus for over two decades.
When pressed to summarize the purpose of the vast collection of her work, Dr. Brown explains that in our pursuit of happiness, joy, growth, and emotional closeness, so many things get in our way: shame being one of the most principal ones.
As a researcher, she seeks to understand the mechanisms that hold people back from what they want. Our ability to change any system is limited by how well we understand how and why it works. As a writer, public speaker, and podcaster, she attempts to convey practical guides for people to implement the strategies and mindsets her research supports.
For many college students, so much gets in the way of joy. For one, perfectionism, an issue that Dr. Brown’s research addresses, is a mindset endemic to college campuses like UC San Diego.
An article from Vox about the harms of perfectionism notes that the general trend for young people is that we are much more perfectionistic than previous generations.
The author of this article, Christie Aschwanden, highlights evidence that the existing pressure to appear perfect present in interpersonal relationships and the pressure individuals place on themselves to be perfect is likely exacerbated by social media.
“Perfectionism comes in three common flavors — ‘self-oriented,’ where someone demands perfection from themselves; ‘other-oriented,’ where they demand perfection from others around them (like spouses, co-workers or friends), and ‘socially prescribed’ perfectionism, where the person feels external pressure from the larger world and society to be perfect,” Aschwanden said.
Not only do those platforms create an environment for comparison, they are a captive audience. They are a digital stage for individuals to perform on in trying to meet the external pressure from a society which expects perfection.
Aschwanden emphasizes the prevalence of perfectionism as well as its relationship to and role in several common mental illnesses, harmful behaviors and physical ailments.
“A meta-analysis of 284 studies found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Aschwanden said. “The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia.”
Perfectionism is detrimental to mental and physical health in the long term. But, in the short term, perfectionism is rewarded in academic settings and in our society that values achievement so highly.
Sometimes the ‘benefits’ of perfectionism, like high grades and sparkly resumes, are more visible than the costs individuals pay to produce those results.
Perfectionism reinforces isolation. If people feel pressure to minimize mistakes and hide failures to appear perfect, they cannot also reach for support in those difficult moments.
When everyone competes relentlessly with each other or always focuses on the next achievement, no one has the time or space to relish in and share triumphs. A perfectionist mindset can leave people feeling burnt out and like they are going through life alone.
It is a tall order to demand anyone change their perfectionist mindsets. Not only is perfectionism reinforced by the status of productivity as a measure of self worth, but attempting a paradigm shift like that is an extensive undertaking.
Dr. Brown wrote multiple books delving into topics like perfectionism in the hopes that she can inform people of how perfectionism appears in their daily lives in unsuspecting ways.
Her discussions set an example for and provide insight into navigating taboo topics such as shame. The majority of the work she produces across mediums builds a structure that the audience can follow to incorporate the findings of her grounded theory research into their daily lives.
Dr. Brown wrote “The Gifts of Imperfection” to tackle the idea of perfectionism in depth. Through this book. Dr. Brown exposes how common perfectionism is and why so many of us strive to be perfect.
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame,” Dr. Brown said.
One of the most exhausting parts of perfectionism is that nothing is ever good enough. Dr. Brown challenges readers to replace that negative self blame with a more compassionate perspective that acknowledges that we are all just doing the best that we can.
Dr. Brown digs down to the root motivations behind perfectionism, demonstrating the link between perfectionism and shame that may not be self-evident.
If shame drives people to perfectionism, part of combating perfectionism must include describing and voicing the things people feel shame about.
“The Gifts of Imperfection” broaches the topic of shame triggers, general trends of which are observed along binary gender lines. In Dr. Brown’s research findings, the most common shame trigger that emerged for women was body image and the most common shame trigger for men were feelings of weakness.
As part of unlearning perfectionism, Dr. Brown emphasizes the importance of defining shame and acknowledging what situations trigger shame in our individual lives.
She talks about how shame feeds on secrecy and to process shame advises sharing our shame stories, whenever possible, with someone who can listen empathetically, without judgment.
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis,” Dr. Brown said.
Dr. Brown lays out a mountain of information in this book, but she organizes it so that action steps are clear. One crucial pillar of her guidance is cultivating authenticity, which involves letting go of what people think and the idea of who we should be.
One important cultural value she criticizes is the idea of “going it alone.” She argues that this idea reinforces individuals’ reluctance to ask for help even when they really need it. Another societal norm that Dr. Brown draws readers attention to is the fact that at the first sign of discomfort, shame, pain or vulnerability most people turn to numbing:
“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,” Dr. Brown said.
Unfortunately, this tendency towards numbing dulls not only negative emotions but positive emotions as well. In the long term, numbing robs individuals of a sense of satisfaction with their lives.
Perfectionism is not sustainable, not only because perfection is a destination no one can ever arrive at, but also because along the way no one is allowed to truly rest. There always has to be improvement, or a side hustle. Perfectionism crowds out much needed rest and ensures that any time spent relaxing is marred by guilt.
Academia tries to prevent burnout often with short term solutions. The kind of exhaustion Dr. Brown warns readers of in this book is a result of trying to be perfect every day for years on end, without gleaning almost any satisfaction.
“If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
Before it was co-opted for a meme format this quote was the final line in a NYT op-ed written by a man who’s coworkers accidentally cc’d him on an email making fun of him. Surely, he had no idea how well his words could summarize Dr. Brown’s research and writing.
Perfectionism keeps people from being known. Everyone goes around perceiving each other’s perfect personas each instead of their authentic selves. There’s loneliness in that, and a claustrophobic pressure as well.
Helping people address the distance between where they are and where they want to be is the purpose of Dr. Brown’s work. She asks what makes the ordeal of being known so mortifying? And how can that mortification be minimized or endured?
“Of this, I am actually certain. After collecting thousands of stories, I’m willing to call this a fact: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children,” Dr. Brown agures. “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
Image courtesy of Brene Brown.