What is perfectionism, and how does it play a role in our mental health?
Where do we learn these ideas about what is perfect, I mean... apart from doom scrolling social media.
On today's episode, Sarah Buino answers LCSW guides us on the origin story of perfectionism, and its root cause might not be what you think.
Sarah Buino, LCSW, RDDP, CADC, CDWF, NMT is a speaker, teacher, therapist and the founder of Head/Heart Therapy — a thriving and respected group practice in Chicago. She is a licensed clinical social worker, registered dual diagnosis professional, certified alcohol and other drug counselor, Certified Daring WayTM facilitator, and NARM Master Therapist, and holds a master’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago.
For more than a decade, Sarah has applied her social work skills supporting individuals, groups, helping professionals, and organizations with issues such as wellness for therapists, shame, antiracism, and trauma. Sarah founded Head/Heart Therapy in 2014 and it quickly grew into an important resource both in Chicago and nationally.
Sarah is also the creator, host and producer of the podcast Conversations with a Wounded Healer, which examines the parallel path of helping professionals of all types as they heal themselves, while supporting their clients. Interviewing prominent guests such as Lissa Rankin, Laurence Heller, Hillary McBride, Sera Beak, Sarah holds intimate and authentic conversations that inspire, educate and entertain listeners. Addressing a wide range of topics from spirituality to antiracism, she invites helping professionals to step into their own healing with courage.
In 2019, Sarah helped launch the podcast Transforming Trauma by The NARM Training Institute and served as the host for the first two years, interviewing leading trauma experts such as Gabor Maté, Dick Schwartz, and Veronique Meade, educating listeners on the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM), a revolutionary approach for healing Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) and restoring connection to self and others.
Sarah has been a member of the adjunct faculty at Loyola University’s School of Social Work since 2015 and Fordham University from 2019-2020. She is committed to supporting the newest generation of social workers to become passionate about and competent in working with substance use disorders.
Sarah has been recognized by National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Illinois as an Emerging Leader (2017); the Illinois Association of Addiction Professionals as a Rising Star (2018); and by Sierra Tucson with its Gratitude for Giving Humility Award (2014).
You can reach Sarah by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you're scrolling through social media, it's easy to see the picture as versions of people's lives, glamour shots at the beach, promotions at work, all the party selfies, this kind of stuff can leave you feeling less than perfect. So you tell yourself that you're going to do all the things, you're going to have that career that makes it rain, that fairytale romantic relationship, and some other cute random hobby. Just because you happen to be a genius at that to you are chasing perfectionism. But this usually doesn't work out very well. You get sick, life gets in the way. And before you know it, years have gone by and that ideal perfect life that you had in mind. It's like a balloon that you lost grip of that has just drifted up into the sky. I'm Clint Mally, and this is real common treatable, where we talk about overcoming mental health, addiction, and substance use challenges in simple everyday language. So we need a magical guide for our perfectionism journey today. My name is Sarah bueno. And I'm the president and founder of head heart therapy, which is a private practice in Chicago. We specialize in addiction, shame and substance use disorders. For Sarah, in trying to help other people in her private practice, she learned just how much negative self talk she was inflicting on herself to in how that feeling of needing to be perfect, was suddenly running in the background in her mind. For a long time. I told myself when I started working in the treatment center, I'm not just going to talk about the things I'm I need to embody them. So I started meditating once I was doing that work, because I was trying to teach people how to meditate. And so I was like, if I'm going to try to teach people about talking to ourselves more kindly, I have to be more mindful of it. And I had never really thought about how I was talking to myself before then and, and so I was really paying attention. And there was a day where we had, of course, the locked closet where all of the records are kept. And I walked to that room, I had forgotten my keys. And in my head, I said, Oh, you're so stupid. And I like paused. And I was like, this isn't stupid, this is a mistake. But as I listened to more and more of the ways that I talked to myself, I was constantly shaming myself and constantly, you know, putting myself in this like black and white lens that either I'm all good and wonderful and great, or I'm terrible and awful, and a big old piece of crap. So that was a really, that was a really good just moment to recognize what I'd been doing to myself probably my whole life. And I know I'm not alone it might be worth defining what protectionism actually is, is there a perfect definition that we can lean on, I actually call it not good enough ism. Because when we say perfectionism, a lot of times people think, Oh, I have to be perfect everywhere in every situation. And if you could see the other side of this room right now, you would be like, she's not a perfectionist, because that doesn't look very clean. But it's not about it's not about every in every single place for trying to be perfect. It's whatever measure you have for yourself, or if you have adopted measures from the outside. So body image is one that I think everybody can relate to. So if we're not 510, long, blonde hair with perfect features, then, you know, we're not good enough based on society standards, and many of us have internalized that, that standard. And that's just one example of how it can show up the areas for myself, I tend to really beat myself up in terms of relationships with other people. So I was just talking in therapy yesterday about my perfectionism related to how I am as a boss, or how I am as a friend, or how I am as a wife, and my desire to never let anyone be mad at me, I always want to make sure I've done the right thing. So they can't be upset with me and I'm not a bad person then. So perfectionism is subjective. It depends on you, whatever your idea of good enough or perfect is. That is perfectionism. And it doesn't have to be about everything. We can not care about excelling at our job, but have perfectionism when it comes to organizing our house or eat unhealthy food just because but also habit the perfect exercise routine. We tried to keep up with no matter what Where do we get the standards? Where do we find these ideas of perfect? Why do we feel the need to be perfect in different areas all the time? Truthfully, I think the real answer is capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. I think that the systems that have been built in this country, unfortunately, were designed to keep a certain amount of people, wealthy and the rest of us oppressed. And I think that, especially capitalism, I've just, I've been doing a lot of work. And I guess I'll say to listeners, anti capitalism isn't about whether or not you make money, it's being in right relationship to money, and making sure that you're not exploiting people. So the way that I really, truly connect capitalism to the ways that we talk to ourselves is capitalism says, produce more, don't push through if you're having pain. And that's not human, that's not normal. And when those are the messages that we mostly get in society, and that's, that's what I've gotten my whole life, it's only been, I think, really since COVID, that I've started to see more messages that say, we have to rest, we have to take care of our bodies, we should be using our sick days, we should be using our vacation time and these superhuman standards. This is just the way our country is function since its inception. And so of course, it's not only stuff that we hear every day, but our ancestors, I think, had it even worse, back when we didn't have some of the conveniences that we have today. So it's really baked into our culture, and it's going to take truthfully, I think it's going to take a revolution to shift that. This hustle or die capitalistic culture can create unrealistic work expectations can make you feel like you have to be making a certain amount of money at a certain age, or you need to have the right stuff in order to be considered a real adult. But what about the whole white supremacy thing? How does that play a role in perfectionism to essentially white supremacist values. And when I say white supremacy, it's really a systemic racism thing. It's not individual. Like when we think of white supremacy, we might think of the KKK or proud boys or something like that somebody who is individually trying to harm another person, I'm more talking about the the systemic culture that's that's been created in the United States. And one, one of the standards that comes right to my head is worship of the written word. That's one of the values of white supremacy and having things be in a certain order having things rules followed exactly as they're supposed to be, which again, is that's not human, I've been actually, I've been working a lot to be a better business owner and taking some courses. And I'm taking a course on productivity right now, which is great for workaholic and this thing that I the thing that the course is missing, because it's telling me all the things to do all the behavioral ways to make sure that I'm more organized, not necessarily to produce more, but to be more effective with my time. And the thing that they don't account for is the motion. Because some of the things that I have to do are very emotional work, because I'm a therapist, and there's no factor in there for what do I do if this task is emotionally difficult for me today. And so a lot of the values of white supremacy also don't take into account that intuition and emotion, these things that have been considered more feminine. So here we bring in patriarchy, things that are more feminine things that are more embedded in non white cultures, we tend to reject them because they don't forward us in a productive way necessarily. There are even more obvious forms of white supremacy that have contributed to how we see ourselves, from skin lightening creams to sometimes dangerous hair relaxation treatments. Much of our culture is entrenched in holding white as beautiful for a very long time, intellectually, for the classics when we consider fine art, music and literature. It's often white or Eurocentric too. Are you less musically sophisticated if you don't know what a concerto is over a Trap Beat? Are you really an art connoisseur if you haven't read dust I ASCII or Chaucer. Sometimes when we aren't open to things that stick out of the classical canon, we don't let our less traditional skills shine. For example, intuition. Intuition, I think is a good thing to think about the fight that's going on inside of the mental health community right now is evidence based practice or not evidence based practice, I teach a class and my students only are learning CBT. And there's nothing wrong with CBT. It doesn't work for me personally as a client. So I've never understood how it could work for anybody else. Because you can't, you can't tell me to just do something different. That doesn't change the way I feel. It's an evidence based practice, because it's reproducible. And, and it's manualized. Right? So that's a white supremacy value, where as intuition, I think of therapy as being both an art and a science. There, there are scientific facts, and there are things that we need to learn, which actually, we probably need to examine where some of that data comes from, because most likely it's sis, hetero heterosexual white men that were studied to get this information, right. But there are certain things that are true that we need to know. But then there are things that we just feel, and the art of, I mean, anything, there's an art to being a salesperson, there's an I'm sure there's some sort of art to being an accountant as well. It's not all just facts and figures. And when we take that part out, I think we're, I think we're missing a lot of the depth and the nuance and the texture of life that isn't necessarily moving us towards gaining wealth, or were building a business or whatever that might be. As Sarah just alluded to, and at the risk of mansplaining, the process of mansplaining. Much of the subjects that we have for traditional forms of research or fact, don't take into account diversity, diversity of food of family structures or beliefs. When we use white books, and especially male white books, as the bar for fact and classical thought, we smother the subtle nuances and beauty of life. All thriving, things need diversity. healthy ecosystems need a bunch of different types of plants and animals to thrive. Capitalism, white supremacy and the patriarchy is the opposite of this. It's taking over a land to create one kind of crop that certain folks want to buy, and to maximize the output of that land, even if it starves the land of all of its health. Am I getting too metaphorical? Okay, back to Sarah. With all these pressures of perfectionism, I had to know, how does she not burn out in the perfectionism spiral? That is a very good question. And I was just talking with my sponsor about this morning, because what can we do nowadays, when we're still in COVID? To for fun, and honestly, it's so boring. The most fun thing I do right now is watch TV. But I'm always learning about spirituality, like I've been looking into it again, I'm afraid to say this out loud. But I've been looking at witchcraft, like from a historical ancestral point, like I'm not trying to cast spells on anybody and ruin anybody's life. But really, one of the the things that I've learned from doing work about my whiteness is learning what the religious history of my ancestors was. And I'm Irish and German. And there's a lot of paganism in that history. So I've been researching that. And of course, that's such a like a workaholic thing to do like research on your off time. But spirituality is a huge passion of mine in in so many different forms. And so it does feel like fun for me. So, how do we shake out of the perfectionism trance? Sarah believes a part of this is mindfulness, self compassion, and common humanity, something she picked up from Kristin Neff research, he talks about there being three components to self compassion. She lists the first is self kindness that actually lists mindfulness first, because I think if we don't have mindfulness, and we're not aware of what's happening, then we're not able to practice kindness to mindfulness being that we are aware of emotions that we might be experiencing. If we're in a moment of suffering if we're in a moment of struggle, and then self kindness being the way that we talk to ourselves. Are we talking to ourselves like someone we love? Or are we talking to ourselves like an asshole? And then the last piece is common humanity. So when I'm in a moment of struggle, do I think that I'm the most terminally unique person and I'm just gonna die because I'm so unique and no one will ever understand me? Or do I recognize that my suffering is the suffering that most humans share? And It is an antidote to perfectionism, because I think that common humanity piece is what's so important. Being able to zoom out and recognize, this is not just happening to me, I am not just alone in this, this is part of the human condition. And normalizing and I think making things more human is always supportive of freeing ourselves from shame and perfectionism. When we are able to take a step back and see our struggles as common, not exceptional, different, sure, but relatable to other humans, then we also have the opportunity to not be so hard on ourselves. Also, sometimes this process of shaming ourselves comes down to trauma, this is when something difficult or harmful happens to us. And the response that we learn is to cope with that difficult thing through shame. One way that people can identify these shaming coping skills is through Narm. Lately, I've been utilizing norm, the neuro effective relational model. So I got trained in arm, I've spent like the past two and a half years doing some pretty intense training with them. And it's all about developmental trauma, which, for the professionals who are listening, and anybody else who might be listening, it's essentially trauma that happens early in life, when there's some sort of failure in the environment. So sometimes that's parents making mistakes, sometimes that's there was a natural disaster, whatever. But there's essentially failure in the family where the parents don't often respond in the way that the child needed to at that time. So again, not putting faults on parents necessarily, but there's something that there was a miss attunement, and Norm talks about shame, not being an emotion, but being a process that we learn in that in the time when we were experiencing the early trauma, and then we learn to shame ourselves over and over again. And so what I've learned through Narm, because I've been doing Brene Brown's work for a long time, I've been practicing self compassion. But there was still this really deep core wound of shame that I wasn't able to get at, there was no amount of practicing self compassion, or getting empathy from other people that was going to touch that. It's really like a norm helps us be aware of the binds that are within us. And oftentimes, we will shame ourselves because we're experiencing these binds, right? Like, one of the things I've been working on in therapy is I want to be a person who's out in front and saying important things. And I am a natural leader, and I'm a natural performer. So that makes a lot of sense. And yet, one of the developmental wounds for me was my mom would say, You're talented, you're smart, you're this, you're that, but don't be too talented. Don't be too smart. So it was this very fine line. And I've experienced this internal bind. And this fear of really being my whole self, really putting everything out there. And so having awareness of that bind, and recognizing how easily it was for me to shame myself, when I would actually step out. Compassion just arises when you are able to sit with the bind. Um, so that's not, those aren't steps, but that the work that I've been doing with Narm, and it gets very deep, it gets very nuanced. And it's sometimes even beyond language. Like sometimes I can just tell that my brain is rewiring itself. And I don't know exactly why. And I don't know exactly how, but at the end of the day, it's really changed me profoundly. Anytime we start talking about shame, you know, that addiction or substance use is somewhere close by. And in terms of perfectionism, it also has a role in substance use, too, I think at the root of perfectionism is shame. And what I found in working in the substance use disorder world is that there are usually two types of clients. And I know it can be really dangerous to put people into categories, but I think this one's pretty safe. Two types of people that have shown up, at least in my experience, one who is able to name their shame, they know that they've been through trauma, and they say, I was using drugs and alcohol to medicate my pain. And I want to work on this shame. I want to work on all of these things that are contributing to me being an addict. And then there's the other type of person who will come in and they'll say, I was just using for fun, and I had a perfect childhood. Everything was fine. And that type of person, also cautious when I say this, but in my experience tends to be more on the narcissistic side of the spectrum. And with those people clients, we not only need to work on their shame, but first we need to help them find it. And I believe least the way that I've been taught is that unless you're a psychopath, everybody experiences shame, because that's a normal human emotion. And so if I have a client in front of me saying, I don't have shame, I didn't experience any trauma, then it it takes, I think it takes a lot more work to move past the denial that really gets in the way. Because if I have a person in front of me not endorsing shame, that tells me that their shame is actually way worse, even potentially, than somebody who is coming in endorsing their shame. So shame as long as it's not a constant downpour that never stops can be a good thing. It shows us that we need change. And no matter what we first need to learn to be aware of our shame, so that we can make a judgment call on it in the first place. How do you shame yourself throughout the day, when comparing yourself to some unfair ideal of perfectionism? If you're struggling with addiction, and you don't feel shame, why is your substance use connected to pushing something down, that you don't want to feel? You deserve to be kind to yourself, to laugh at yourself, when you trip on the street, or lock yourself out of your house? You are definitely not the first one to do this kind of stuff in you can also bet that there are a ton of folks listening who have felt like an imposter too, that they aren't good enough. And then when they sum themselves up, that something is missing. But you You are beautiful, just the way you are. And in case no one has told you today. I am glad that you are on this planet sharing this moment with me. If you find Sara's honesty and candor super refreshing like I do, then there are a ton of ways to connect with her. I think my podcast conversations with the wounded healer is a great place because I'm very clearly I'm very authentic and honest and vulnerable and will share a lot about myself in my process and and I speak with other people in a variety of healing tight perfections about that journey of healing self while caring for others. And you can find that on all the podcast apps wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. My website is head heart therapy.com. And Instagram is probably my favorite place to connect with folks. And that's head heart therapy. And you can also find us at head hurt therapy on Facebook. Hey, hold this perfectionism thing. It's real. But as we learn today, it's way more common than you think. And most of all, it's treatable. All my love, and we'll see you on the next episode.