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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? ...

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The Devil Made Me Do It

I’m doing one of those Bible reading plans where you read the Bible in a year.   Each day you read something from the Gospels, Epistles, Psalms or Proverbs, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  It’s helpful for me to do this on occasion due to my tendency either to soften my memory of source material or, much worse, invent it.  If I’m going to have scripture guide my spirituality it’s a good idea to come to terms with it as it is instead of how I remember it to be.   A few days ago Mark 2:15-17 and I Corinthians 5:9 were up on the same day.  In the Mark passage Jesus and his disciples have dinner with tax collectors and sinners.  When the Pharisees ask him why he is doing this, Jesus replies,  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (NIV).  In the I Corinthians passage Paul discusses the case of a man having sexual relations with his stepmother.  To this Paul advises the Corinthians, “You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.  Do not even eat with such people” (NIV).   You’ve got to love the contradictions inherent in the Christian Bible.  In the same cannon Jesus proclaims that everyone is welcome at His table while Paul, supposedly speaking for Jesus, says that only the righteous are allowed at his.  So whom do we believe?  Is the church a school for sinners or a society of saints?   Theologians trying to make sense of these contradictions have spilled no shortage of ink.  It’s enough to keep you perpetually curious, confused, and dizzy all at the same time.  Of all of the theologians who have wrestled with these issues one of my favorites was Martin Luther.  Although I have gained quite a bit from him theologically, it was his ability to let God be God that has always encouraged me.  Whenever he seemed to run out of plausible explanations for his adversaries – and it was usually his adversaries for whom Luther wrote – he would pull the God-card.  “I don’t have an answer for that,” he would explain.  “But God does.  I’m trusting Him.” *   Regardless of where we land in our Christian walk, we all must contend with these seeming contradictions.  We can ignore them, pick and choose, adopt systematic theologies that try to unify that which seems incapable of unification, create our own theologies, or, in some cases, when the tension between these discrepancies and our consciences get...

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Jesus’s “Third Way” and “The Wall”

“We should be non-attached, but non-attachment must not lead to apathy; we need to be concerned with justice, but we must not meet injustice with anger; we should be ready to act, but action must always take account of the conditions which lead people to act in unwholesome ways, and be motivated by compassion for both oppressed and oppressor.” – Rose Drew, Buddhist and Christian?: An Exploration of Dual Belonging, p. 159 Whenever I’m uncertain about a direction I must take in life I ask God to show me what I am supposed to do.  OK, not always, but usually once I discover I’m not getting anywhere on my own I’ll do this.  If I assume an attitude of mindfulness I will undoubtedly have my answer by the end of the day.  Often it is not the answer that I wanted, but it’s always the answer that I need.   A few weeks ago I was in just such a position.  It wasn’t a major life decision that I was unsure about but I was wondering if a topic I really wanted to write about was not only relevant, but also if how I wanted to discuss it wasn’t too “out there.”   The topic in question had to do with the language that we use to describe our life experiences.  As I discussed in the post The Crucible of Vulnerability the language that we use does more than just describe life; it determines it.  If we use language like “wall,” “battle,” or “war” to describe emotional experiences we run the risk of creating internal struggles instead of alleviating them.   In that post I noted that it wasn’t going to be there where I discussed the language that we use to describe our life experiences but it would be in the next post.  This happens to be that next post.  But how was I going to discuss the language that we use to describe our life experiences without being too, as I said, “out there?”  That was the question that I had for God that morning.  From there it was my job to pay attention.   That night I led the X3LA Men’s Recovery Group.  It was a particularly successful group with around 12 men attending and filled with open sharing and a great deal of personal revelation and growth.  After the meeting ended I walked out onto the streets of Hollywood with a friend of mine, a man who has been coming to the groups for the past three years.   “I’m coming up on that point,” my friend said in reference to “The Wall,” that stage in recovery two to three months after sobriety where the...

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The Crucible of Vulnerability

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job.  Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner. (MSB)   – 1 Peter 4:12-13   If you’ve been in any of my recovery groups lately or read my posts, especially Stages of Recovery (Change), you are well aware of the concept of “The Wall.”  “The Wall” is the third stage of recovery from substances of abuse.  It looms after two to three months of sobriety.  Many have approached “The Wall” but few have breached it.   I write that last sentence tongue-in-cheek.  The term “The Wall” sounds so foreboding, like “Swim at Your Own Risk” or “Abandon hope, ye who enter here,” but the truth of the matter is “The Wall” is merely a term given to a concept.  This stage could just as easily have been labeled “The Transition Point” or “The Shift,” something softer and more mundane.  Yet for many “The Wall” feels exactly like a wall so it may as well be labeled as such.   Regardless of this fact, “we do well to choose our metaphors wisely” as spiritual leader Parker Palmer offers in his brief but profound book Let Your Life Speak, (p. 96).  The language that we chose does more than just describe our life experiences; it determines them.  If we use language like “wall,” “battle,” or “war” to describe what is essentially an emotional experience we run the risk of fomenting an internal struggle and begin to see change not as growth but as destruction.   This post isn’t about the language we use to describe our inner experiences, however.  The next post will be.  This post is about what is really going on within us as we approach and move past “The Wall.”  My hope in these two posts is to demystify “The Wall” and if not aid you in breeching it then certainly help you in dissolving it so that it no longer exists.   Recently I was working with a client who has been addicted to sex, not to mention alcohol and drugs, for the majority of his life.  Pornography was not his thing as much as anonymous sex and sex with prostitutes.  This man had spent over forty years of his life managing his emotions through sexual fantasy, affairs, and booze.  Fortunately, both physical and relational circumstances had cornered him to the point where he needed to change or else he would literally die.  In essence, he was at rock bottom.  At least I hoped he was.   I had spent six months...

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God, Community, and “The Wall”

“Repentance…demands a radical turning away from what was and a trusting in the unknown journey of faith.  It means acknowledging one’s implication in the sin of the world and a beginning to live as if God were real.  Repentance means giving up control and learning to trust God enough to feel certain that whatever God decides will be just and fair.” – John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, p. 141   I received two significant emails recently.  Both were from men who had reached “The Wall” stage in their own personal recovery from pornography use.  “The Wall” is at the second or third month of sobriety.  It sounds ominous.  I don’t know if it should or not, but it does.  Essentially, “The Wall” is the point where the recovering person starts to face him or herself.  And then there’s some physiological issues thrown in there.  Joy…   The first email I received had to do with “The Wall” but it was in regard to a post I had written entitled Fear.  In that post I had explained how facing our fears holds the key to our sobriety because it is precisely our substance abuse that aids us in avoiding our fears.  Go sober and you face your fears; face your fears and you are sober.  They are one and the same.   Because of the very nature of the relationship between sobriety and fear there is a spiritual dynamic to all of this.  If by definition there is nothing we can take into our fears, that means that when we face our fears we meet God since God, as a non-object, is all that remains.  Go sober, face your fears, meet God.  Easy enough, right?  Not exactly, and that’s why it’s called “The Wall.”   The man who had sent me an email regarding my discussion of fear could sense that this wasn’t easy as well and so he inquired, “How do I push into fear and the unknown?  What does that look like?”  Since I knew this man and he knew me he offered his own answer, “I know you’re going to say I have to find out and it’s different for everyone.”  He was right, but more on that in a moment.   The second email I received was in regard to something I had written in the post Stages of Recovery (Change) in which the concept of “The Wall” was first introduced.  In that post I wrote,   I often think, in regard to the men and women who come to addiction support groups in church settings, what it would be like for them if they were in rehab, if...

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Fear

Not so long ago I was having a difficult time with a number of things in my life.  There were many round pegs and too few square holes.  This wasn’t just relegated to my personal life.  I had a few clients who were challenging, one of whom was delusional, possibly psychotic, with hints of antisocial personality disorder.  Think manipulation.  Think rape.   One day in particular I felt as if I were being drawn inexorably into a black hole.  I felt, in a sense, hopeless, as if I were losing myself and as if life as I had known it was being wrenched from my hands.  I felt cut off and alone in my suffering.   In the midst of this inner turmoil I turned to a number of people who were closest to me, sharing my experience and maybe even looking for some advice.  A family member recommended that I contact some people whom I admired and who did similar work as I do.  With that I called a man who, whether he realized it or not, had become a mentor.   What I respected about this man, apart from him being a professor of spiritual counseling, was his brutal honesty and joyful sarcasm.  I also respected the fact that he had spent years as a Buddhist practitioner before becoming a committed Christian, a not very common spiritual trajectory.   When I called this man I sensed him setting aside all that he was doing so that he could be present with me, a skill I assumed he had procured through years of mindfulness training and meditation.  I spoke some of my current personal challenges but mostly about my clients, in particular the delusional, possibly psychotic, anti-social one.  After describing my inner experience of floating inexorably into a black hole he hesitated before speaking.   “What if you didn’t have to bring yourself from that black hole?” he said.   Hearing this a number of thoughts went through my mind.  The first was through the filter of my childhood and the many rather intense personalities that filled it – life is scary and sometimes dark and you just need to deal with it.  The second thought was more defensive – what the #@$% is this guy talking about?  I call in a moment of existential angst and all this man can give me is some wonky Zen paradox?   As the weeks went by and as I dealt more and more with both personal and professional challenges the question my mentor had posed to me kept coming back, especially when I sensed that black hole looming.  The question had changed somewhat in my mind, however; it was altered...

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