Finding Freedom from Perfectionism and Shame

What does it feel like when you make a mistake? Do you laugh it off, knowing you’re human and mistakes are common to all of us? Do you see it as an opportunity, finding ways to learn and grow from it? Or, do you feel anxious, panicky, and self-critical, feeling sure that others are judging you too?

If you tend toward the third response, there’s a good chance you experience perfectionism. Perfectionism is both an ideal and a pattern of behavior. Those who wrestle with perfectionism set extraordinary standards for themselves and then work hard to control their behavior in such a way that aims to reach these goals. The difficulty comes when these individuals fail to achieve the perfection they desire.

Perfectionism can show up almost anywhere. Maybe you’re a student, and you’re driven by a fear of falling below a 4.0 GPA (“What will your mom think?”). Or maybe you’re a mom, and you’re energized by the need to ensure your child behaves perfectly at school (“What will the other parents think?”). Perfectionism even shows up in me as I write this post (“What will the readers think?”). This sort of thinking often leads to hyper-controlled behavior, and can add fuel to the experiences of anxiety and depression.

But what lies beneath perfectionism? The answer may surprise you.

Often, it’s shame (Brown, 2021).

Perfectionism is different than a strong work ethic or setting goals. It’s actually a coping mechanism, whereby my fear of being judged or seen as less-than is managed through trying to do everything right. When we do fail, though, these underlying messages are exposed.

“I am stupid.”

“I am a failure.”
“I am bad.”

And these are shame statements.

Shame, as one of Spring Tree’s therapist’s Carly Nevarez, MA, LMFT, previously wrote about in her blog Guilt and Shame: The One We need and the One We Don’t, is a unique emotion which arises when we feel that our identity is inadequate. It’s not just that I made a mistake, but that I am a mistake. Research professor Brené Brown also adds that shame leads us to feel “unworthy of love, belonging, and connection” (Brown, 2021, p. 137). Shame attacks our character, and then makes us believe we’re better off hiding from those who know us best.

But knowing the connection between shame and perfectionism can actually help us find healing from both. For example, when we do make a mistake, we can learn to recognize if the feeling of shame follows. Does my chest feel heavy? Do I want to withdraw? Does my mind start spinning with judgements? When we recognize this feeling as shame, we can begin to approach our experience with curiosity. What message am I believing about myself because of this mistake? Is that actually true?

Brené Brown also has helpful resources on identifying patterns of perfectionism and shame. Dr. Curt Thompson does as well. He has both written on shame and created a podcast where he discusses these topics.

As we become aware of our own shame, one of the most powerful ways to combat it is to bring others in our experience. Yet, this can be one of scariest steps to take, because shame fuels the lie that we are better off staying hidden. However, as we bring our mistakes and feelings of shame before others who are safe and love us, shame loses its power. The witness of another actually undoes something within us that holds onto those shame messages.

This is also why therapy is such a powerful tool for healing – therapists hold space for the places people are most often afraid to speak out loud. If exploring this type of personal work interests you, you can connect with one of our therapists by reaching out to us here.

It’s in the spaces of curiosity and vulnerability that both perfectionism and shame can find healing. Freedom, courage, and relationship are fruits of the journey.


Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House Publishing Group.

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