I have been absent from these pages for a while. In my partial defense, my spouse and I have been preoccupied with moving into a new home. There have been several 800 mile round trips to our new house and a lot of de-cluttering of our present home in the past 90 days, which have been mentally as well as physically taxing. However, there is another, more personal and ironic reason for my recent absence: I’ve been caught on the horns of my own perfectionism. After my last post, I felt overwhelmed by the need for the next installment to be “perfect.” So I hemmed and hawed and found a million things to do – anything to avoid sitting down at the keyboard and writing! So, as any good therapist might say, “Let’s talk about that.”
I sometimes think of myself as the captain of a ship – the “SS Me.” I wear a fancy uniform and stand on the bridge, issuing orders. But far below decks, the engine room has been commandeered by a band of gremlins. I can give all the orders I want, but it is those gremlins below decks who pull the levers – or not. Sometimes they obey my commands. Equally often, they have different ideas about where to take the ship. I think they follow captain’s orders just often enough to placate me, and keep me out of their way. One thing is clear: They are resistant to the captain making an inspection of the engine room, barricading the bulkhead doors and sounding the alarm whenever I even start thinking about it!
Even worse, and in a reversal of the usual direction of chain-of-command, the gremlins send the captain messages, if not direct orders: “Something is wrong, and you need to fix it right now, or something terrible will happen. You must do it perfectly. You have no margin for error!” These dire warnings elicit one or the other of two responses from the captain: a sense of urgency and controlling behavior, often culminating in some sort of explosion, or the diametrical opposite: premonitory fear of failure, leading to task avoidance and psychological paralysis.The gremlins feel no need to specify exactly what terrible thing may happen in order to elicit a response. "Nameless dread" will do nicely as a stimulus.
If you are a neuropsychologist, the captain is your frontal cortex, and the gremlins are your limbic system. If you are a Freudian, think Ego and Id. But you get the idea. Does any of this sound familiar? If you are a perfectionist, it should!
What to do about it? I cannot diagnose or treat individuals via a blog. But broadly speaking, it’s fair to say that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy can help. Medications help too, in combination with “talk therapy.” A bit of humor can also help. The quote at the head of this blog has provided me with some relief, but not exactly in the way you might think. Rather than directing this message at the help-seeker, I direct it at myself, as a reminder: There are limits on how much I can do to please others. Wrapping that message in a bit of humor makes it easier for me to accept. I am also fond of the “starfish” parable: Originally here but adapted innumerable times, e.g. here and here. Like the quote emblazoned on my coffee mug, the starfish story reminds me of both my power to help others and my limits. Accepting one’s own limits is very hard – but is the antidote to the urgency and self-reproach of unchecked perfectionism.
Until next time!