Perfectionism is a disease among my patients. People’s inner dialogues these days are unrelenting. The oddity of this all is that the more perfect someone might seem on the outside, often times the more broken they are on the inside. (Of course, this isn’t everyone by any means). It takes a ceaseless, judging superego to maintain the veneer of perfection to the outside world, and any sort of crack in the crevices of one’s soul proves that one is messing up.
I ask myself often: why are so many suffering from this perfectionism? There is no doubt that perfectionism is a defense, but a defense against what? Well like a lot of defenses, perfectionism begins in childhood. Even supposed good parents are not immune to pushing their children to achievements and praising someone for what they do. Even the statement, “I want you to be happy” is an imperfect one to say to a child. You might say I’m picking nits here, how can saying you want your child to be happy be imperfect parenting? It’s simple, saying you want your child to be happy, implies that if a child doesn’t feel happy, then there are doing something wrong. Subtleties like this can lead to a more judging mind. I suggest an alternative: telling a child that it’s ok to feel whatever they feel, allowing them to express who they are, and then going from there.
Our society is another reason perfectionism reigns supreme. The truth is in the modern economy we are in competition. Capitalism breeds it, encourages it. The free market, according to some, is a meritocracy, and those corporations or people who are unworthy get weeded out. To put it another way: only the strong survive. Whether we realize it or not, this is embedded deep in the American psyche. As a result, we naturally feel competitive with our peers. I can’t tell you how many of my patients cannot celebrate the successes of their friends and peers, how it inevitably makes them feel jealous.
Social media as we know encourages this competition as well. The rise of influencers is an extreme example of this, people paid to show a fantasy lifestyle that in no way resembles reality, but unconsciously gives up an example of what life should look like even if reject what we’re seeing. It’s sort of like junk food. Sure, in small doses it’s fine, but eat it every day, and you start to feel sluggish. On a more subtle level are the more prosaic everyday social media posts, the reels, the photos of your friends having fun. This can be a good thing, to see what people in your life are up to, but again like junk food, if you consume it constantly, it will start to have effects, which you probably aren’t even aware of, creating expectations of what life should be. (I try to encourage patients to consciously consume social media, even following therapy-like accounts which encourage self-reflection).
A person who is well-adjusted in my opinion has nothing to do with a so-called perfect life. It is the person who can accept their life and their feelings just as they are. Every moment is a chance to awaken our hearts just a little more, to grow with self-love and compassion for ourselves. Inevitably if we can give ourselves self-love, it eventually extends out to all the people in our life.
It is important to define what “self-love” is, however. It is not the praise of our parents or society for “doing well” or “achieving.” It is not the easy victories of vanity, of being beloved by the outside world. Those things feel good, of course, but if one’s self-esteem is built on that, one’s self-esteem inevitably collapses when that is taken away. Self-love means letting yourself fuck up and embracing that. It is a kind and gentle attitude towards one’s self. It means allowing ourselves to feel whatever we feel without judgment, but with love and attention. When we allow this something happens, we can feel actual joy for life. As I’ve said before, “doing” stops being the lens we see the world. We can just be, just as we are, imperfect beings of light.