Pre-Lakers I was an avid LeBron James fan for a myriad of reasons. I was such a fan that my kids and I named our cat LeBron. One of the many reasons I like LeBron James is a mantra he lives by — “Strive for Greatness.” While it’s a great mantra, how do we differentiate a relentless pursuit of greatness from a raging addiction to perfection?
It may sound crazy to parallel the two, but the similarities are undeniable. Much like an addiction, perfection is fleeting, elusive, driven by fear, and fueled by shame. What many people fail to realize about addiction is that the person/process/substance of choice is never the real problem—it is a symptom of an underlying problem. The addiction becomes a coping strategy that consumes the addict. If you find yourself struggling with an overwhelming need to attain perfection or a crushing call to be bigger, badder, and better, you may want to ask yourself one question.
How is this serving ME?
While an all-consuming quest for perfection may be a great benefit to others, more often than not, this quest usually serves us on a more insidious level. Unfortunately, how it serves us may be self-defeating and more mentally, emotionally, and spiritually detrimental than it is positive. The darker side of this quest often serves us by shifting our focus away from some pain of our reality. Reaching for something unattainable is a great distraction from that which we cower from, which is usually emotional pain.
Emotions are like the boogieman under your bed. They cause you to shudder in terror, but when you shine a light on it and face the fear, it disappears.
A job well done can be very fulfilling. It can feel rewarding to complete a home project, excel at work, or know that we’re a person who is punctual and conscientious. But when does our striving for excellence degenerate into a dysfunctional addiction to perfection? When shame is the driving force.
Shame is the Catalyst of Debilitating Perfectionism
As children, many of us were rewarded at home and at school for achieving “results .”Unfortunately, many also have the experience of being shamed when we don’t meet the expectation of others. Whether we received painful tongue-lashings, the cold shoulder, or an icy stare of disapproval, we may have interpreted that to mean we are only accepted and loved when we’re “successful .”With this comes the belief that we are bad, unloveable, and unworthy of love and accepted when we fall short. This belief results in shame.
We develop a false, protective self through slow and steady toxic messaging that we display to the world to win praise and avoid the pain of disapproval. When our need for love and acceptance is not nurtured, we come to live with the overpowering voice of an inner critic that is so scrutinizing and cruel it produces a level of shame and self-doubt that could bring LeBron James to his knees.
A steady diet of shame for inevitable shortcomings can grow into debilitating perfectionism. If we can achieve perfection in all we do, we become bulletproof to blame and criticize. If we become “perfect” in all our endeavors, we increase our chances of avoiding the painful re-activation of shame.
Perfectionism and hyper-vigilance come at a cost. It isn’t easy to find true joy and fulfillment when we relentlessly pursue perfection. When our self-worth is tied to our actions rather than embracing ourselves as human beings with strengths and weaknesses—we set ourselves up for being anxiously preoccupied or depressed.
The Pathway to Peace
It is liberating to loosen the grip of perfectionism, but first, we need to recognize how shame may be driving you off track. When we begin to identify the shame and become mindful of how it lives in our body, we start to get distance from it rather than being driven by it.
Learn to observe our inner critic objectively. “Ugh, there’s that shame again telling me I that I suck if I don’t do everything perfectly…and insisting that I’m destined to become homeless and die a sad, lonely death if I make one tiny mistake.” Identifying the voice of our inner critic empowers us to silence it and diminish the power it has over us.
Being human means failing miserably at times. We learn and grow from our mistakes by humbly acknowledging them and being compassionate toward ourselves. We are more likely to succeed when we’re no longer paralyzed by the fear of failure.
When that inner critic chimes in, rewrite the script and channel a LeBron James pep-talk. “Stop caring about what other people think! Do your best, give it all you got. If you fail miserably, it’s an opportunity to turn that into your greatest achievement. Either way, it’s a win!”
The ability to reframe your perspective and rewrite the script is extraordinarily freeing! It gives you the power to find pleasure and meaning in activities regardless of whether you succeed or fail in any initiative. Each person needs to find their own balance and path. The key is to apply ourselves wholeheartedly without getting too attached to results. Strive for greatness while letting go of the burden of being obsessed with perfection or a specific outcome.
As you become mindful of the shame and fear that may be driving the cruel burden of perfectionism, remember that you don’t need to be perfect to be loved and accepted. When you feel compelled to displace the balance of your life and push painfully hard for perfection, make sure the compensation is worth the cost. Your self-worth is priceless, and you are worthy, loveable, and valid just as you are.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that LeBron James is an anomaly. And in my humble opinion, like most grotesquely overpaid professional athletes, he is very much addicted to perfecting his gift. But even he does not promote insist you strive for perfection; his mantra is Stive for Greatness. And even LeBron embraces and reframes his failures along his journey.
One last video… Addicted to Perfect