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Why It's OK to Feel Weak

The perfectionist's struggle with shame and vulnerability.

Key points

  • Sympathy and pity have different motives behind them.
  • Perfectionists tend to believe being weak is always harmful.
  • Learning how to accept sympathy can help you feel that you matter.

Perfectionists view their worlds in absolutes.

Their sense of morality and their expectations apply to all environments, all of the time. So, as most of us learn to feel safe in some contexts, differentiating them from the dangerous ones, individuals with high levels of anxiety, and accompanying obsessions with security, tend to conceive of vulnerability as a general weakness. Safety exists solely in their own minds.

Perfectionists believe that perfection is perfection everywhere. Thus, much of the work in therapy entails cultivating an understanding of the duality of a trait, learning to see it as beneficial (being a perfect fit) in one environment while flawed in another. And perfectionists tend to fear feeling and expressing their feelings. When we consider psychological safety, we think of people and environments we feel safe with and in. When perfectionists consider the same construct, they think of being fortified from everyone, as the world, to them in general, is a hyper-competitive and unforgiving venue, where only the strong survive.

This was my perspective when I was in therapy with my therapist, Jennifer. Revelations were scarce and I spent much of our time intellectualizing, searching for the causes of my problems without ever creating solutions. I couldn't tell her how scared I was of change or how much I hated her pity. After months of stimulating chatter and absolutely no progress, Jennifer told me, "Everything you do is a big f*** you to psychology." She was right. I had no interest in helping myself; I wanted to acquire more knowledge just to feel smart. In essence, I was an incredibly annoying patient, one who was fun to chat with but who, you knew, wouldn't allow the process to become more meaningful.

I had a deep mistrust of her, which was fanned by her pity. And, I felt a deep resentment toward her, believing she thought she knew better than me. As many of our own patients feel, I felt humiliated by her feeling sorry for me. At the same time, when she expressed any sorrow for how my stepfather bullied me when I was a child or how scared I was of failing to complete my graduate program, I believed that she "knew" how incapable I was, as though I were a child thrust into an adult world. I couldn't fathom vulnerability as part of some remedy or as a strength. If Jennifer really believed I possessed her capabilities to manage distress and overcome any hardship, then she would've merely reminded me of them. Or so I thought.

I didn't yet understand that one can, at once, feel sadness on behalf of someone and not judge them for their predicament. For sympathy and pity are two different constructs, yet they're often confounded. When the clinician is attempting to provide the former, her client, sometimes, feels the latter. So what’s the difference? Sympathy is a feeling of sadness due to the realization that you or someone else was mistreated. A sense of unfairness, and acknowledgment of injustice, about the treatment is implied. For example, I felt ashamed for not having had the courage to stand up to my stepfather when he was scary and verbally abusive. I believed that I should have retaliated when I was a teenager. Yet, Jennifer didn't believe she could have, and would have, responded more courageously had she been placed in a similar position (or that she knew how to prevent that sort of treatment from occurring at all). So, her expressed sadness didn't cast blame onto me. While sympathy implies the belief that one didn't deserve, and maybe even couldn't prevent (because no one else in that context could have either) the received treatment, pity implies that she's to blame for all or most of it, even if she "failed" to protect herself.

Internalized shame is the progeny of trauma. And my shame colored my understanding of how others understood me. Vulnerability was never perceived as a strength because even what appeared good was ultimately bad. To the perfectionist, who has to always be in control of her emotions, she struggles with envisioning a world in which she isn't always blamed for her sorrows. Vulnerability, to me at the time, could have easily been defined as "asking for it."

However, as I resisted her gifts, I never thought that I mattered. If, again at the time, I had the courage to exhibit more of myself, Jennifer's sympathy could have made me believe I did. Pity makes you feel that you aren't important; yet, sympathy does. Pity is about comparison; sympathy is about solidarity. Pity is about self; sympathy is more about others. Pity is about contempt; sympathy is about compassion.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams asserted that shame is “typically characterized by withdrawal from social intercourse, which can have a profound effect on psychological adjustment and interpersonal relationships. Shame may motivate not only avoidant behavior but also defensive, retaliative anger.” In Jennifer, I created an enemy and retaliated against her when she tried to help me feel human, no better or worse than anyone else. Vulnerability can only be conceived of as a strength if you believe that at least in some contexts, weakness is the appropriate option. Being the best isn't synonymous with what's best for oneself. While I attempted to outmaneuver and outwit Jennifer, I missed out on an important connection, one which eventually aided me in significant ways. First, however, I needed to learn that what I was doing was a flaw in that particular setting. Once I realized that, my weakness was tolerable.

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