I'm just going to say it: I'm pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it's about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we've done—or failed to do—with our personal values. The discomfort that results often motivates real change, amends and self-reflection.
I interview people of just about every faith you can imagine, and a lot of them will say, "Oh, I've got major Catholic guilt" or "I've got major Jewish guilt." And I'll say, "Tell me about it." And they'll say, "Well, if I don't show up for Shabbat every Friday, I'm a bad son. My brother always goes."
Clinically speaking, that's not guilt. That's shame, and one of the worst things about shame is that we often don't know when we're feeling it. When I'm interviewing subjects, I hear, "I'm worthless. I'm a piece of crap. I don't blame my parents for hating me—who wouldn't?" And this is shame. We may not know how to name it. But we know how to feel it—and it is a totally separate emotion from guilt
A clear way to see the difference is to think about this question: If you made a mistake that really hurt someone's feelings, would you be willing to say, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake"? If you're experiencing guilt, the answer is yes: "I made a mistake." Shame, on the other hand, is "I'm sorry. I am a mistake." Shame doesn't just sound different than guilt; it feels different. Once we understand this distinction, guilt can even make us feel more positively about ourselves, because it points to the gap between what we did and who we are—and, thankfully, we can change what we do.
3. Perfectionism Is Not About Striving for Excellence
For some of us (including me), what I'm about to say is horrifying: Perfectionism is not about achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfectly, look perfectly and act perfectly, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame.
Most perfectionists (also including me) grew up being praised for achievement and performance in our grades, manners and appearance. Somewhere along the way, we adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. A ticker tape began to stream through our heads: Please. Perform. Perfect.
Healthy striving, meanwhile, focuses on you. It occurs when you ask yourself, "How can I improve?" Perfectionism keeps the focus on others. It occurs when you ask, "What will they think?" Research, unfortunately, shows that perfectionism hampers success and often leads to depression, anxiety, addiction and missed opportunities, due to fears of putting anything out in the world that could be imperfect or disappoint others. It's a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from taking flight. Another way to think about it? Consider Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem," which says, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
Next: The myth about vulnerability