Perfectionism is an additional—and perhaps less examined— way that people play the victim. Many view perfection as the standard that must be reached in order to be successful. It’s held up as a virtue in all aspects of our lives, especially in professional and vocational endeavors. We feel pressure from others to be perfect, and we feel pressure from ourselves.
Perfection does not exist in the human experience. The closest thing to perfection is in the nature and design of the human body. A fully functioning newborn is beyond wonder.
Perfect = anger
Perfection fits into the anger cascade in the following manner. A given situation, person or you is less than your concept of ideal. You then blame one of the above for being less than perfect. You are now a victim of “less than perfect” and you are perpetually in some state of conscious or unconscious agitation. David Burns in his book, Ten Days to Self Esteem, points out that the gap between your concept of perfect and your reality is the degree of your unhappiness. Since perfection is unattainable, you’ll suffer endless anxiety. So why do so many of us continue to embrace it? I will offer my observations from the perspective of an extreme perfectionist.
First of all, we are programmed to “be all that we can be” by many different influences. We are also taught that “pushing yourself” is the best way to accomplish this goal – except the pushing evolves into punishing and there is no limit. Since this strategy often achieves impressive short and medium-term results it seems like a reasonable pathway. However, just using the medical profession as an example, the burnout rate amongst physicians is over 50% in every state in the US and has risen between 5-10% in the last five years. The burnout rate in neurosurgeons, in one study, demonstrated that it was over 65%. The same driving energy that pushes you up the hill takes you down the other side.
I feel a second, and maybe bigger factor, is that the victim role is so powerful that humans will do almost anything to create and hang onto it. As per the prior discussion, as perfect is unattainable you are able to remain a victim of imperfection indefinitely. It is the ultimate in self-flagellation.
Perfectionism Seems Everywhere
85% of people in chronic pain have not forgiven the person, employer, other driver, etc. who caused their pain. Interestingly, the person they are the most upset at is themselves. If your intention is to live a life filled with peace and joy, how can you accomplish it by holding onto resentment, especially if it is directed at you. I am going to relate some conversations that are representative of ones that seem to occur several times every week.
Starting a new life
I was talking to a friend of mine who is recently lost his wife. He is a high-level professional and is trying to meet someone to start a new life. Invariably he becomes upset by feeling inadequate, he is not a good conversationalist, his interests are too narrow, he does not like his appearance and the list goes on. Then it came out that he places these same labels on his dates. What he is not aware of, and I learned this the hard way, is that your mind projects onto other people and situations the way we feel about ourselves. This is psychology 101 and I had forgotten it. The term for this behavior is projection. So when you are in a judgmental mode and expressing it to others, you are revealing to the world the way you feel about yourself. This is particularly true if you are upset.
Anthony DeMello, in his book The Way to Love, points out that eventually you learn to thank the person who upset you because he or she is the window into your own soul. If you are upset or hard on yourself, you will be critical of others. You cannot unlink these circuits. The other person simply triggered you and it is not them that is upsetting you. This is the most difficult part of this whole process for me because it still feels like it is them and not me. This is especially true with spouses.
Hard on his family
I was talking to one my colleagues who has had a lot of success using the tools in the DOCC process with a marked decrease in his anxiety and stomach pains. He has found the expressive writing and relaxation tools the most helpful. He had also read Dr. Luskin’s book, Forgive for Good. He had returned from vacation and stopped writing since he felt so good and relaxed. The day he walked back on the job his symptoms returned. It came out in further conversation that he is very hard on himself. He is an ex-baseball player who almost went pro. I asked him if he was critical of his kids. He admitted that he was. I pointed out that he was not going to be any easier on them that he was on himself and that in the big picture he was not being that nice to either. What he held up as “high standards” was really perfectionism without an endpoint. Was this really the world he wanted to create for his family? Dr. Luskin is very clear that forgiveness has to begin with forgiving and accepting yourself? We all sort of know this, but down deep we don’t pull it off very well.
What do you want?
I talked to another friend who is almost as self-critical as I have been (maybe still am). He just cannot accept himself or enjoy the results of his excellent work. He continues to suffer from chronic low back pain. His lower back MRI is normal for his age. He is on an endless quest to find an answer, which is time-consuming and expensive. Meanwhile, he stopped his expressive writing, was doing a little meditation, and was not sleeping well. He had discontinued the basics that he had experienced some success with. I know that when I stop using the strategies that I know are helpful, I am in a self-destructive victim role.
I asked him the same question about him being hard on himself and he could barely put into words how critical he is with himself and those close to him. He could not forgive himself for some of his past behaviors. Then I asked him, “What do you really want? Do you want to be pain free? Or would you rather remain in this self-vindictive angry state of mind and continue to suffer in pain?” It caught him off guard. I pointed out that the victim role is so powerful that there will never be a day when he wakes up and wants to give it up. It is a daily ongoing choice. Consequently, he is continuing to make his own life miserable as well as his family members. Whether you verbalize it or not people know when they are being judged. Again it is not very nice. I challenged him to give up the victim role or move on and at least not subject his family to his self-directed anger. I don’t know the end of this story.
OCD – the ultimate in perfectionism
The fallout of this endless self-criticism and therefore of others is devastating to our families and now our society. I am talking to many of my friend’s children who have ideals for themselves that cannot be met. It is perverse in an era of so much opportunity that our children feel so pressured to be all that they can be. Why not teach them to enjoy themselves and let who they are evolve?
One conversation was with the daughter of one our friends who is in her mid-20’s. She had completed college and had switched majors a couple of times. Unfortunately, she developed a full-blown obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is the ultimate anxiety experience. I also had OCD for over 10 years and it was intolerable. Raw relentless anxiety will wipe out every aspect of your life. She had begun to experience anxiety in middle school and it manifested itself by over-doing homework to the point where she could not complete it. It had become progressively worse to the point where she could not be productive and hold a job. Yet she was personable, attractive and competent. What happens is that this story of “not being good enough” or “it has to be perfect” becomes its own reality. It is a circuit that becomes deeply etched into our nervous system just like phantom limb pain. I call it “phantom brain pain.” It is not rational and strategies such increasing your self-esteem or overachieving will not turn off this noise. I shared my story about how deeply I was in this hole and am now thriving. I am not sure that I got through. Letting go of perfect seems to be a problem.
So what is the solution? These are not pathways that you can intellectually solve. Remember that your body is also chemically reacting to these thoughts and creating multiple physical symptoms. Suppressing them makes the situation even worse. The key is to become aware of the depth and nature of your critical self-talk. Writing your thoughts down increases your awareness of them. It also creates the needed space in your mind to understand the magnitude of the impact that perfectionism is having on the quality of your life. Finally, make a decision to be happy. That entails accepting yourself through forgiveness. You cannot get to happy while remaining perpetually judgmental. Then choose to program your brain with positive alternatives and solutions. Paradoxically, you will possess an endless amount more energy to achieve your goals.