Reflections on Perfection
“When approval is conditional on performance, then closeness and affection are bound to suffer. Maladaptive perfectionism hides deep-seated feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. In particular, the feeling that excessively high standards are expected and necessary to win approval and acceptance can lead to intense feelings of hopelessness.”
– Madeline Levine, Ph.D., The Price of Privilege, p. 180
There is a strong connection between perfectionism and compulsive behavior. The internal dialogue goes something like this:
“My inherent value is as a businessperson, writer, artist, athlete, doctor, actor, attorney (you fill in the blank). Damn, I just made a mistake. Because my inherent value is as a businessperson, writer, artist, athlete, doctor, actor, attorney, etc. and I have made a mistake, I have just disconfirmed my value. I must be worthless. Boy, feeling worthless sucks. Gee, looking at porn, visiting a strip club, eating a box of donuts, getting drunk, or smoking a bowl of weed sure feels good right now.”
Pretty simplified explanation for a dynamic process but seriously think about how you have organized your reality. In what ways does your performance in any given realm dictate how you feel about yourself? What thoughts go through your head when you mismanage an account, struggle to get motivated around a creative idea, procrastinate, fail to complete a workout, rush a patient, don’t get a call back, or bill fewer hours than your co-worker? And then what do you do to manage the resulting anxiety about not being perfect?
The irony about perfectionism is that most perfectionists would never consider themselves to be perfectionists. Why would they? In perfectionists’ minds perfectionists are people who actually achieve perfection, and since they can never achieve perfection then they must not be perfectionists. By its very nature perfectionism is an occult disease, a double bind. Occult in that it exists but it cannot be seen. Double bind in that it is because of its invisibility that it trips you up.
Another reason perfectionism is an occult double bind is because everyone’s perfectionism is connected to different aspects of life. One person’s object of perfection is another person’s minor speed bump. A woman may be down on herself for wearing the wrong shoes to a social event and her husband may think, “Big deal. They’re just shoes. Your feet are covered. Get over it.” Later, when this husband’s erratic professional pursuits are exposed in conversation he may experience tremendous shame, to which his wife may express, “Big deal. It’s just work. You’re doing what you’re doing now. Get over it.”
Where does this perfectionism come from? Are some of us just naturally sensitive or do we develop perfectionism? Or is it both? To explore this, I’ll start with a story.
For the past eight years I have been coaching my son and daughter’s soccer teams. My daughter stopped playing soccer about three years ago but all-tolled I have coached or co-coached eleven different teams in those years. I’ve shared a lot of time with kids other than my own, and especially their parents.
Beverly Hills is the league in which my kids have played. Maybe you can imagine the scene. It’s predominately wealthy but ultimately with a mixture of families – Jewish, Christian, businessmen and businesswomen, doctors, attorneys (a lot of attorneys), Hollywood moguls, married couples, single mothers, single fathers. If I were to pick one word to describe the parents of the children I have coached, however, I would say it is driven.
My own journey through this aspect of my life has ranged from giving my kids the freedom to pursue or not pursue the sport if that is what they are interested in doing to becoming slightly enmeshed and wanting them to succeed whether they wanted to or not. Even at my age and with my education and experience I still have to check myself to make sure that their soccer playing is for them, not for me.
My wife and I did challenge our daughter to continue playing a year beyond when she wanted to quit. We thought it was good for her…exercise and all of that. Right or wrong we offered her an American Girl doll if she ever scored a goal, never having imagined that she would. But there she was, in a playoff game, right in front of the other team’s net with the ball at her feet. She kicked it, and scored. I threw my tea in the air and ran down the sideline screaming. My daughter said she blacked out and didn’t remember a thing. On some level the joke was on her since it was because of this unimaginable set of circumstances that her team continued on in the playoffs, which meant she had to play more games.
Our son, on the other hand, loves soccer and he’s good at it. This is where I have to work hard to separate myself from him. “I am not my son,” I have often said aloud. His successes are his successes and, as hard as it is for me to watch, his failures are his failures. Ironically, one of my proudest moments in watching him play soccer was one of his most difficult.
He was playing on a team that was a bit above his ability level, which was largely my own fault as I had volunteered to co-coach. Some of the other kids on the team, as well as their parents, had made disparaging remarks about my son and after a particularly poor game in an important tournament my son came off of the field on the verge of tears. “I suck!” he exclaimed as he ripped off his cleats. “They think I suck!” He watched the other players and their parents walk away from the sideline.
I was at a loss for words. Internally I felt caught between the scrutinizing pressure of my co-coach and the other parents to make my son perform and the more important lesson of unconditional love and letting my son experience this moment for what it was, both good and bad. The only words I could come up with were, “You’re a great player but there will always be players better than you. That’s how you get better. You just have to pick yourself up and play the next game the best you know how. Don’t worry about them.”
After I spoke a few more words I could tell that my son’s nine year-old attention span had closed. That or his young ego could only take so much of this. The teaching moment was over and whatever the result would be would be. A few hours and a few crusty looks from both parents and players later the next game began. My son had been relegated to right defense, a position often used in youth soccer to get poorer players out of the way. But as the game got on it was obvious that my son’s play had changed. The delicacy he had exhibited before was gone and in its place was aggression and tenacity. His anger had been transformed into determination.
At a crucial point in the game our defense broke and our goalie had come out of the box. The goal was undefended. It was certain that the other team’s easy shot was destined for the net. But out of nowhere a fast moving, skinny kid popped up in front of the ball and deflected it inches before it crossed the goal line. The right defensive player, the player who was put there to be out of the way, was the one who thwarted what would have been the other team’s game-winning goal. My son became an instant hero.
One of the saddest occurrences I witness each season as a coach is when players make a mistake on the field and immediately look up to their parents on the sidelines to see if they noticed. In these moments it’s painfully clear that the game is not being played for the child; it’s being played for the parent. The child is trying to satiate the parent’s insatiable need for perfection to prevent judgment and ridicule.
What moved me so deeply about my son’s playing in this tournament wasn’t that he finally yielded to pressure and did what others wanted from him. It was that I never remember him once looking up at me, either literally or figuratively, during or after the games to check to see if I approved of what he was doing. I’m certain he felt responsible to perform the best that he could to fulfill his role on the team, but I believe he was able to do this because he felt secure enough in his own value as a human being – because of his father’s unconditional love for him – that he could take ownership of his own experience and rise to the occasion for himself.
What was your experience with performance as a child? What was expected of you? Was love and appreciation conditional on achievement? These may be tricky questions to answer. Some may immediately be able to recognize that they had authoritarian parents who exacted perfection and only meted out love and approval based on results. Many others may say that no, they had very loving families, and didn’t feel as if their place was determined by what they did and how they did it. However, if compulsive behavior is present in your life, like porn use or anonymous sex, it might be wise to reconsider. Remember what was said about perfectionism being an occult double bind? It can be present, but we don’t realize it because of its very nature. Compulsive behavior is a marker for perfectionism.
Growing up is a process of developing a set of “shoulds.” We should keep our clothes on at a party. We should chew with our mouths closed. We should play peacefully and not hit. When we are younger, shoulds are mostly a product of immediate family/caregiver influence. As we get older, however, greater cultural shoulds materialize. We should listen to certain types of music. We should go to college. We should get married and have kids. Shoulds keep us connected to people and community. If we adhere to certain shoulds then we’re in. If we don’t, we’re out.
Clearly, many shoulds are healthy. Some of these shoulds prevent us from invading other people’s personal spaces, make us more pleasurable to be around, and, as a result, increase our friendships. Many other shoulds, however, are unhealthy, and often because of the same desired result. We want to feel connected so we deny our deepest feelings because we should be like the others whether we really are inside. To be different risks disconnection. Shoulds keep us connected, but often at a price.
It is this conflict between who we really are inside – our deepest often unexpressed feelings – and the person we feel we should be that produces the uncomfortable emotions that lead to compulsive behavior, particularly sexual compulsivity. These emotions could range anywhere from depression to anxiety, despair to self-hatred.
Let’s say I were much more authoritarian with my son. Let’s say, from birth on, I was intent on making my son live out all of my unfulfilled desires including being a good soccer player. When this moment at the soccer tournament occurred, or many other moments like it, my son would not only be tuned into the emotions and perspectives of those parents and players around him but also, and especially, into my emotions. He would want to make sure that I am happy with his performance for fear of me excluding him. Essentially, my son’s locus of control, his “thermostat” for regulating his emotional life, would be outside of himself. He is only OK if his parents and family think he is OK; he is only OK if he adheres to the “shoulds” of his immediate childhood environment.
I am convinced that nine times out of ten depression, and other emotions that lead to compulsive behavior, is a product of this external locus of control, this “tyranny of the shoulds.” Something happens to us, or we do something that goes against what we were told is correct. Our external thermostat (parents) tells us that we shouldn’t have let this happen or we should have made a different decision. We should have been perfect. We then begin to punish ourselves internally in the same way that the people closest to us punished us. We make ourselves feel bad because that’s what we deserve. More importantly, we make ourselves feel bad so as to give ourselves the unconscious sense that we are still connected to those people in our past to which connection was so vital. But feeling bad is no reward either. If only there were something to take this discomfort away from us. There is, so we think, and so we use porn, engage in anonymous sex, take drugs, or get drunk.
The trick to Real Change is to begin to build an internal thermostat, an internal locus of control. This can be achieved in part by taking a look at the “shoulds” that govern your life. What do you feel you “should” do? What do you feel you “should” be? Do you actually agree with this? What do your heart and soul – what does God – seem to be telling you you’re destined to be? Answering these questions is no easy process but it is essential. To change in significant and enduring ways requires that you examine the shoulds that govern your life and learn to live the unique life you were given despite what others may think.
As I have noted in many of the posts on this site, this type of change is often scary, and for many reasons. Apart from a fear of psychically separating ourselves from our caregivers and experiencing the initial overwhelming nature of facing life on our own (read Change, Part I and The Crucible of Vulnerability) it is often difficult for many individuals to come to grips with the harsh reality that they have lived their lives up to the present under false pretenses. The perfectionist inside of him or herself screams, “If only I had known that perfectionism fueled my compulsive behavior! I could have done so much more with my life!”
Hopefully one can sense the irony in that statement and the true insidiousness of perfectionism. The lesson to be learned here is that perfection is unattainable on all levels not that you could have been perfect in accepting your imperfections if you had only known about them. To be depressed or anxious in realizing the damage perfectionism has caused our lives is to miss the point. The only answer to perfectionism is finally to submit to life and accept that it will change us as much as we try to change it. There is no perfection in Real Change since inherently Real Change is a process of living with ambiguity, disappointment, and our own humanity. There is no perfection in Real Change because Real Change is about accepting our imperfections, even reveling in them (2 Cor. 12:9).
The soccer season to which I was referring was over a year ago. My son has been on two teams since then. I have made it a point to be even more mindful of my own enmeshment with the kids, especially my son. They are out there to have fun, learn, and grow. Some of that may include winning. Some of it may include losing. Either way, they are their wins and they are their losses, not mine. I can only guide and encourage.
A Zen Koan is a paradoxical phrase intended for the hearer to rely on uncertainty and the unknown instead of reason. A good Koan momentarily stumps the hearer requiring him or her to be jarred into the present. There have been a few occasions recently when over-eager parents have sidled up to me at games and confronted me on their own child or another child’s performance. I now offer them my own Zen Koan. “What if this game isn’t about what you think it’s about?” I say.
There is some unhealthy passive-aggression in this question but the point I am trying to make is that no, the game they are watching is not about the game they are watching. It is yet another childhood experience among thousands of childhood experiences that will provide their child with the opportunity to increase his or her skills in mastering the internal regulation of emotions. The game they are watching is about the reality that some day the kids on that field will be businesspeople, writers, artists, athletes, doctors, actors, attorneys, etc. and they are going to need to have developed internal resources that allow them to experience defeat, have compassion on themselves, and own their mistakes without the need to turn to pornography, anonymous sex, drugs, or alcohol to feel accepted and included.
As a father, I will inevitably make the mistake of communicating unhealthy shoulds onto my kids. Of course I will. I recognize that I am not perfect. The antidote I have found to this is to make sure my kids are aware of my own imperfections. I make mistakes in life and I have often made big mistakes. As hard as it often is, I make sure that I share these mistakes with my kids when it is appropriate – the unsuccessful ventures, the job losses, the rejections, the compulsive behavior. I share that along with the good stuff. This way my kids will hopefully see that life is often a process of not measuring up to “shoulds” but that there is grace. I can’t think of anything more Christian than that.
A “Should” Exercise:
- Keep a should-sheet. Write down the shoulds in your life of which you are aware and be mindful of when you actually say the word “should” in conversation.
- Categorize your shoulds into two columns, “healthy” shoulds and “unhealthy” shoulds.
- If you want to dig deeper, write down from whom you think you inherited these shoulds.
- When you feel depressed, anxious, or experience other uncomfortable emotions, seriously consider if there are shoulds that have caused you to feel these emotions.
- Honestly ask yourself if it is really worth you continuing to own the shoulds that cause you to feel uncomfortable emotions and consider replacing those shoulds with new, healthier ones that confirm your inherent worth.
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