The Perfectionist’s Shame: Why the Difference Between Responsibility and Blame Matters

“We don’t want to become what we are. We want to become a concept, a fantasy, what we should be like. Sometimes we have what people always call the ideal, what I call the curse, to be perfect, and then nothing we do gives us satisfaction.” -Fritz Perls

Idealism is the progenitor of shame.

On the one hand, it helps us cultivate a better world; but, on the other, it forms the foundation of a myriad of emotional maladies. Perfectionism is tied to the beliefs that one is inherently bad and unlovable, but it holds the promise of abundant affection if she can rid herself of her impurities. This love is as divine as she can be (and, sometimes, thinks she is), but it resides only in the fantasy of her daydreams. So, she lives in a juxtaposed state, in which she craves perfection but suffers immensely when recognizing her limitations.

For perfectionists, who idealize love, it’s a state of both knowledge and ignorance, of the awareness of her inability to reach nirvana and of believing she can. When my perfectionistic clients consider their imperfections via external, negative feedback, they’re often transported back to their childhoods, encapsulated, again, in helplessness and shame. In an environment wherein each action is highly scrutinized and each mistake aggrandized, the child grows up to value herself based solely on her tallies. Was she kind enough, smart enough, polite enough today? Did she offend? The construct of the good girl, the one who’s preoccupied with social justice and the general well-being of the world, becomes not merely an ideal to aspire to but a suffocating despot.

For her, blame and responsibility are inextricably intertwined.

Because children need love immediately, consistently, and desperately, taking responsibility for some mistake, or for making an unethical decision, to the child, becomes viewed through the lens of catastrophic thinking. If being bad entails being unloved, then she comes to believe that she’ll be abandoned. The relative perfectionist is the one who believes that perfection is merely one’s effective adaptation to his environment (e.g. learning a new skill), but the absolute perfectionist believes that he has to be perfect everywhere, all the time, and to everyone, essentially the perfect fit anywhere he goes, because imperfection carries a steep penalty. Now, the desperate need to be perfect makes so much sense. The refusal to take responsibility, to admit weakness, appears more reasonable. If you’re convinced that I’m bad, how could you then love me?

And in trying so hard to be good (as opposed to being bad), the perfectionist chronically wrestles with her darkness. Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams writes, “People who are strongly preoccupied with being upright and responsible may be struggling against more powerful temptations toward self-indulgence than most of us face.” By failing to acknowledge those self-oriented impulses, she can become the narcissist she so abhors, while feigning ignorance of her self-absorption. (Remember Nietzsche’s warning about fighting monsters?)

And here is why the difference between blame and responsibility is so important. People tend to shy away from the latter because they feel the former. However, responsibility asks: how do we prevent this from repeating? And, blame says: you deserved this. But agency doesn’t and shouldn’t always entail shame. Most of the time, even when behaving selfishly, we don’t intend to harm. And, some of the time, we engage in wishful thinking, explaining away obvious red flags. But, should ignoring danger imply just desserts? I argue that it doesn’t. The perfectionist grows up in a environment that doesn’t allow her to be human. She learns that being so is weak and necessitates scorn. Therefore, she has to rise above or else she’ll deserve her lot.

No matter how much attention one wants or how many biases one engages in, innocent individuals never deserve harm. And, just as an animal learns to associate a particular behavior with ensuing pain, the perfectionist associates responsibility with punishment. You will hurt me if I’m bad. Or, even worse, you’ll leave me.

So, most of the work done in therapy centers on providing a space for the client to grow by taking responsibility for her mistakes (i.e. examining how her decisions contributed to certain outcomes) while helping her accept that doing so won’t necessarily engender a catastrophic outcome (e.g. she won’t be shamed and/or abandoned). Additionally, the aspect of treatment that seems to help my anxious clients most is my willingness to share responsibility, and shame, for the mistakes we make together. If we arrive at a bad decision together, it’s our bad decision, not only theirs. In this way, if they’re stupid, then so am I. Thus, stupidity is shared.

Whereas, the perfectionist might expect to be blamed and told to figure it out herself, the therapist can use that space to teach her that others won’t always fear sharing her fate. Because she’s used to an environment with individuals who tend to shame, blame, and absolve themselves of their duties, the perfectionist learns that she was owed so much more. And as she constructs her tolerance of failure, she’ll come to make more decisions on her own, creating for herself a sense of independence based on an awareness of her competence rather than one that’s based on fear.


  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    It seems that perfectionism can stand in the way of learning- a skill for example. Mistakes are a necessary adjunct to learning. It may inhibit the development of experimentation and personal style as well as authenticity. I was thinking about Stanley Kubrick renowned for this quality but making repeated takes to attain what he required.

    Liked by 1 person

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