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The Catch 22 of Perfectionism. Do or Don’t Do — There’s Shame Waiting for You

I was in therapy a good deal in my twenties.

Most of the work had to do with perfectionism and shame.

Someone along the way suggested I read a short, little book called, “How To Be Your Own Best Friend.” Its format was easy — a conversation between two therapists about growing out of your childhood and becoming an emotionally mature person, who is supportive and loving toward themselves. Whichever therapist it was realized that I’d very easily slip into a harsh, critical place in my head, hearing a shaming voice that told me almost constantly what I could’ve done better — how I should be thinner, nicer, more successful.

My own critical thoughts were often my worst enemy. Sound familiar?

Reading that simple book turned on a lightbulb in my head, as simple as the premise seemed to be.

“You mean, I don’t have to keep a thumb in my back to be happy? Constant shaming and questioning of myself isn’t necessary to be a good person? I can trust who I am innately?”

No. No. And Yes.

Shame and classic depression…

Shame can often have a significant role in classic depression. Having feelings of guilt about actions that you’ve done or things that you’ve said that you regret can seep into how you think of yourself. You’ve shifted from being someone who made a mistake to being a bad person in your own mind.

You’ve shifted from guilt to shame. Or you feel excessively guilty, as if your remorse has a life of its own and defines you.

Shame and Perfectly Hidden Depression… It’s a Catch 22…

For someone with Perfectly Hidden Depression, it’s a little different. You’re constantly evaluating yourself, and not living up to who you believe you could be. Even if you’re successful, or have accomplished things very difficult to accomplish, you’ll focus instead on what could be better. There’s rarely a time when you relax, sit back and enjoy whatever it is you’ve created.

Or perhaps you’ve had it in your mind to do something. But you put it off because you can’t fit it in to your overly-crowded schedule right now. So you push it completely (or almost completely) out of your consciousness — except you know you haven’t done it — and rather than admit, “Sorry, I can’t pull that off today,” or, “Hey, I’ll get to that next week, but this week’s just impossible,” you shame yourself for the avoidance.

It goes way beyond drive or high expectations. It’s a Catch 22. Do it, but not perfectly — and there’s shame. Don’t do it — put it off — and there’s shame.

Nothing for you is ever quite as good as it could be. Your focus is on what isn’t, instead of what is.

To make things more complicated, your shame is hidden…

All the while, mind you — this shame you feel — you hide.  You look to others as if things are great — that you’re quite satisfied with life, while inwardly chastising and demeaning yourself.

What shows outwardly doesn’t reflect your own inner criticism.

Often, this voice you hear belongs to someone from your childhood — your father, mother, grandparent or a bully at school. Maybe you don’t hear that voice any longer — but your own voice has joined in chorus, and taken over where a harsh parent left off. Maybe you learned perfectionism from a parent who also struggled with it. They couldn’t see either when it was time to let off the accelerator and admit exhaustion or struggle.

Let’s face it. Sometimes, we all need to be critical of ourselves. You could be hurting someone else, not realizing the impact of what you do on others, or just being an all-round jerk. Obviously, having a conscience is important, and empathy for those around you necessary to enjoy quality connections with others.  Holding yourself accountable is important.

Constantly nagging yourself? Opening your eyes first thing in the morning, and having some kind of negative thought about yourself?

It’s a waste of your life.

So how do you stop shaming yourself?

One question and three rituals to practice…

Here is a magic question. “Is this thought helpful to me today?”

Let’s say I’m thinking about someone who I know is undergoing cancer treatment. I texted last week, brought food in weeks past, but I haven’t contacted her in a few days. I remember this with a start. Here’s what comes for someone with PHD. “I can’t believe I didn’t make that a priority. I feel awful.” Here’s what comes for someone who is being their own best friend. “I’m glad she came to mind, and I’ll put that on my priority list for tomorrow.”

Is it helpful to beat yourself up for something you can’t control or affect now?

Only if it’s helpful for today. Only if it’s going to lead you to do something positive — today. Only if it’s guiding you to be a better person — today.

And only if it lasts a few moments.

It’s definitely not helpful if it’s a way to drag you down, and give your inner demons a workout.

Those demons don’t need any more fuel. They need to be quieted, tamed into submission.

Here’s how to do just that.

  • Recognize how you started initially shaming yourself.
  • Catch and challenge the painful habit you have of continuing that pattern.
  • Replace the shameful thought with one that is more realistic and self-compassionate.

It takes practice.

Those demons that love to whisper hurtful thoughts into your ear are accustomed to having free rein over your mind and heart.

They can be softened, even silenced.

And you can live a more productive and satisfying life.

Being you.


If you want to take a questionnaire to see where you might fall on the spectrum of PHD, click here.

Please confidentially email me at [email protected] if you experience or have questions about Perfectly Hidden Depression. Or you can read more of my posts here on Psych Central or on my own website.

If someone has been hanging in there with you for years, and loving you well, click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret!

You can hear more about PHD and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.



The Catch 22 of Perfectionism. Do or Don’t Do — There’s Shame Waiting for You

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments -- [email protected]

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2018). The Catch 22 of Perfectionism. Do or Don’t Do — There’s Shame Waiting for You. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Jul 2018
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