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Shame and Perfectionism

We often hear the word “shame” thrown around in the therapy world. And “shame” has a very negative reputation. Everyone always speaks about how shame is stifling and inhibiting and does more harm than good. However, we also know that as Jews, we are “bishanim” and shame is one of our identifying characteristics. So, is shame harmful or one of the core traits of a Jewish person? The answer is both, sort of.


In the psychology world the distinction is made between guilt and shame. Others like to refer to it as shame and toxic shame. Regardless of what you want to call it, they are two very similar emotions that people often experience surrounding mistakes, yet one serves as a helpful tool that propels us to grow and the other is suffocating and impedes any sort of growth. But how can you tell the difference?


Guilt is that feeling we get when we do something that doesn’t align with our value system and we feel badly about it. It’s when we know we are capable of doing better and therefore have this natural, internal feeling of OOF. This feeling, although usually unpleasant, is very helpful because it teaches us what not to do. It’s that inner teacher in us saying, “now students, we don’t do X,” and we can learn from our guilt to behave in a way that is more aligned with our values. Knowing this, it makes sense why shame (AKA guilt in this context) is one of the defining traits of the Jewish people. Guilt helps us, Hashem’s Chosen nation, to take our inevitable mistakes in this physical world and learn from them to grow as people and become closer to G-d. Later, when we’re faced with the same situation and act differently, we know we used our guilt as a ladder for self improvement. That’s teshuva. Yay go us!


Shame, however, is crippling because it tells us we ARE our mistakes. Shame doesn’t tell us we are better than our mistakes and therefore we can do better in the future, but that we are just as bad as our mistakes. And that’s when we get trapped. Because if we’re so beyond terrible because of something we did, then how can we ever repair? How can we ever come back from that? Not only does that feel absolutely terrible, but it’s also not true and wastes our mistake as an opportunity to grow to become better people. Now, at this point, someone who experiences shame might think, “okay maybe that’s true for some people. Not me, though. If only she knew what I did, then she would think I am just as awful as I think I am.” This is the trap. The shame makes you think you are different from everyone else. “Maybe others can repair, maybe others can come back from what they’ve done, but not me.” And that is such a waste because here we have the perfect opportunity to grow! We can use our mistakes to teach us that we didn’t perform in the ways that we value. We can use our mistakes to apologize when necessary and understand we are so much better than how we behaved. But shame doesn’t let us think that. So instead we think we are terrible people and our mistake is a wasted learning opportunity.


The danger of shame is that it doesn’t stop there. The shame then tells us either, to just give up now while we’re ahead because we are so despicable anyways there’s no point in trying, or it tells us that we need to be perfect. If I AM what I do, if my worth is of the same value as my actions, then I just have to be perfect and then I will be a “good person”. Simple fix! If I’m perfect then I’m good! The problem here is that you will never be perfect. You won’t. As hard as you try, you will never be perfect. And that can be a very hard pill to swallow until you realize you were never meant to be perfect. Human beings were not created to be perfect, we were created to make mistakes. That doesn’t mean that we are supposed to be perfect, and then have momentary lapses of imperfection when we make mistakes, and then it’s time to return to perfection. Being created as imperfect means we are always imperfect. Whether we behave in ways which we deem are “good” or “bad”, we are always imperfect beings.


The key to overcoming shame is recognizing that you’re allowed to be human. The shame separates us from everyone else saying only other people can mess up. But why should you be held to a higher standard than everyone else in the world? Why should everyone else be able to do teshuva, except for you? This isn’t ridding ourselves of responsibility. We are still accountable for our actions and how we treat others. But we become free when we give ourselves permission to come back from a mistake. When we recognize we are tzelem Elokims, pieces of G-d, and therefore have inherent worth. So to anyone who’s reading this who struggles with that voice of toxic shame, you are not a bad person. You deserve to be human just like everyone else. You don’t need to exhaust yourself by always trying to be perfect in order to feel like you have some worth. Try your best, mess up, do better, and then remember that’s how it was always meant to be.

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