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Self-esteem and Perfectionism

 Self-Esteem and Perfectionism

Self-esteem is difficult to define but a lack of it is one of the most common reasons people come for counselling. There is a close link between self esteem and perfectionism, between self-esteem and a sense of shame and between self-esteem and vulnerability – and between all these issues and difficulties with anxiety, depression and addiction.

My next three blogs will focus on the work of Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Her two Tedtalks are among the most-viewed on  (2010) and  (2012)

As a counsellor I highly recommend listening to her to my clients – she is a funny and engaging speaker who is willing to talk about challenges in her own life as well as her research findings. I also recommend her books to many of my clients – whether they are struggling with anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. I can honestly say that of all the psychology / self-help books I’ve read over the years, they are far and away the best. Apart from the fact that she is an excellent writer, she bases everything she says on her twelve years of interviewing many thousands of men and women of all ages on issues such as self- esteem and perfectionism, shame and vulnerability.

Society’s messages

This week’s blog looks at her ideas about perfectionism and self- esteem and focuses especially on her book “The Gifts of Imperfection – let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are”.   She says that every day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be. We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we’d no longer feel inadequate. So most of us perform, please, and perfect, all the while thinking, What if I can’t keep all of these balls in the air? Why isn’t everyone else working harder and living up to my expectations? What will people think if I fail or give up? When can I stop proving myself?

The “Do” list and the “Don’t list”

As a result of her interviews, Brene discovered that there were a group of participants who seemed to live their lives in a different way to the others – they seemed to have a lot more resilience and a different way of looking at things. In order to analyse what they had and others did not have, she analysed their stories and realised that patterns were emerging – into a “Do” list and a “Don’t” list. She was shocked to find that even though she had thought that she herself would be doing all the “Do’s” and none of the “Don’ts” having been in this area of study for many years, that in fact, in her own words, “This is just great. I’m living straight down the shit list”.  She says that she felt “hi-jacked by her own data” and the revelation led to her having to totally re-assess how she was living both her private and professional her life and she spent the next year working through this. She was then able to write what she wanted to be a guidebook on what she calls “Wholehearted living”.

She says:

“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.”

About the book

The book is divided into ten guideposts as follows;

  1. Cultivating Authenticity: letting go of what people think
  2. Cultivating Self Compassion: letting go of Perfectionism
  3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: letting go of Numbing and Powerlessness
  4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: letting of Scarcity and Fear of the dark
  5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: letting go of the Need for Certainty
  6. Cultivating Creativity: letting go of Comparison
  7. Cultivating Play and Rest: letting go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
  8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: letting go of Anxiety as a Life-style
  9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: letting go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To”
  10. Cultivating Laughter, Song and Dance: letting go of Being Cool, and “Always in Control”
Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with low self-esteem and would like to talk it over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are. Centre City: MN, Hazelden

See also my blogs on: Self -Esteem, Perfectionism and Self-Esteem, Shame and Recovery