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Gordon Livingston
Gordon S Livingston M.D.

Fear Lurks Behind Perfectionism

Hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin.

Of all the burdens we inflict on ourselves and those around us, perfectionism is among the weightiest. Each of us has plenty of experience with an attitude of indifference to quality, that allows us to be satisfied with goods and services are "good enough" to sell to others: toys that break on first use, unreliable and expensive car mechanics, incorrect orders at restaurants, planes that don't run on time, computers that freeze and leave us talking to tech support people in India, bungled police investigations. The list of human failures of competence and attitude is long. To combat these inefficiencies businesses adopt all manner of "quality control" approaches to construct a society in which things work most of the time. "Zero defects" is an ideal frequently sought but seldom achieved. While this process of intolerance for error makes for a reasonably efficient business environment, when applied to the murky area of human relationships, it has some critical disadvantages.

Take childrearing, for example. A Yale law professor has published a book called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which promotes the idea that raising successful kids requires that parents make all decisions about how their children spend their time: basically either studying or practicing music. Since the secret to academic or musical success is "tenacious practice, practice, practice," there are to be no sleepovers, playdates, school plays, TV, or computer games. Nor is the child allowed to get any grade below A. The justification for this regime is that "children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." If the child resists this program of "rote repetition," it is OK to "excoriate, punish and shame the child." She tells one anecdote about the horrified reaction of "Western parents" at a dinner party when she apparently bragged about calling her daughter "garbage."

Even allowing for some exaggeration on the part of an author selling a book, this is challenging material for parents wishing the best for their kids. We are forced to reflect on issues like what constitutes success in this society, and about what values we wish to transmit to our kids and how this process unfolds. The debate takes place against a background of concern about narcissism and a sense of entitlement that, fairly or unfairly, are seen as implicit cultural values in 21st century America. The aforementioned book defines success solely in terms of individual achievement with little attempt to conceal the mother's contempt for the poorly-parented "losers" with whom her children are competing.

One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of fear as a motivator than the parenting style advocated by someone who argues that insults and intimidation are the essence of successful parenting. Such an approach manifests a deeply pessimistic view of human nature that supposes that our children, and by extension, the rest of us are fundamentally lazy and driven by our uncontrolled desires for pleasure and therefore must be forced by some external source - parents, religion, government - to conform to a rigid set of rules that will make us better, or at least more tractable, people. Such an assumption requires a lot of constraints and a lot of prohibitions ("Thou shalt not..."). And the basic enforcement mechanism is fear. One need only observe life in a theocratic society like Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban to get a taste of how that idea works.
Since everyone concedes that there must be rules to regulate our lives together, there must also be penalties for breaking them. This is the theory upon which our justice system rests. But striking the balance between positive and negative consequences is where our efforts should lie. If you believe in the idea that most people have a conscience and a sense of reciprocal obligation to each other then you are likely to behave (and expect others to behave) in a different way than if you believe that we are motivated primarily by our own self-interest and are restrained from taking advantage of others only by a system of punitive law. The truth, of course, is that there are among us, perhaps 1 percent of the population, people unrestrained by conscience who spend their lives exploiting their fellow citizens. These are the sociopaths against whom we must protect ourselves. (Their incidence in prison populations is about 25 percent.) They respond only to negative consequences and are therefore dangerous to the people around them. Unfortunately, their relentless pursuit of their own self-interest combined with their slick and exploitive personalities sometimes cause them to rise to the top in political and business pursuits. Their incidence among successful executives and politicians has been estimated at 4 percent.

Most of our fears about sociopathic behavior focus on our personal apprehensions. People routinely overestimate the prevalence of crime and have exaggerated fears of being victimized. It is easy to see why since crime makes for interesting news and whole cable channels are devoted to portraying it. Our fear of violence drives the debate about the need for every citizen to bear arms even in places like churches or college campuses, even though our chances of needing to defend ourselves is vanishingly small. (One armed bystander at the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and others in Arizona nearly shot the wrong person.)

The signal defects in self-absorbed personality disorders like narcissism and sociopathy is an absence of conscience or empathy in people with these traits. Most people's concerns about criminal behavior are directed at individual acts of violence. What we should really wish to discern are instances in which people in power, who have the ability to affect the lives of millions, routinely display deficits in their ability to hear any heartbeats other than their own. We are entertained by the hypocrisies of politicians, movie stars, and persons of wealth, especially when they take the form of sexual infidelity. Why is it that the offenders, when exposed, so frequently turn out to be those who have been judgmental about the transgressions or sexual lives of others? Is there a connection between a public promulgation of "family values" and a private desire to live differently?

Of all the ways we betray ourselves and the people around us sexual infidelity is one of the most common and consequential. And much of it is driven by fear: fear at the aging process with its implacable loss of physical attractiveness, fear that we have not in our lives had our share of novel sex, fear that others may be having more fun than we are. The portrayal of relationships in our entertainment and among those paid to entertain us is bound to leave many with a feeling that they have lived inhibited lives with few opportunities to satisfy their sexual desires. Since sex sells, we are bombarded with images of youth and beauty that seem tantalizingly out of reach for most of us.
We are not taught by our parents or the culture that really good sex occurs in the context of a relationship in which the participants care about themselves and each other equally. Instead we are frightened with prohibitions, religious and otherwise, that only make the forbidden fruit of extramarital relationships seem more exciting. As Adam and Eve could not resist partaking of the knowledge of good and evil, so we find ways to burn our lives to ashes on the altar of infidelity. Some even argue that people, like most animals are not "wired" for monogamy. Television shows celebrate polygamy, though it must be said to be a gender-specific institution: one man, multiple wives, which raises questions about the role of male entitlement in constructing religious rationalizations for it. And we are faced with the question behind all moral judgments: Who, if anyone, is being hurt? If the wives, as they claim to be, are happy with the arrangement and have been able to foreswear jealousy, then what is the harm in any alternative definition of what constitutes a relationship? Perhaps such arrangements are simply another symptom, like the high divorce rate, of the decline in conventional marriage?

And yet we cling to the ideal of monogamous commitments even though half of our first lunges at matrimony do not endure. The ideal of one other person loving us as we are, coming home to us every night, being willing to have children with us, and consenting to grow old together appears to have a permanent hold on our dreams. So we seek such a person from the time we are young without knowing precisely who we are looking for. That the process is prone to mistakes, heartbreak, and second effort is daunting yet inevitable. We know we are born alone and will die alone, but aloneness in the time between these events is intolerable and so we continue to seek each other out in what I like to call "the search for the perfect stranger." A few are lucky enough to find that person, the rest stop at nothing in the effort. If only we had a better idea of whom we are looking for, we might have a better chance of preparing ourselves to find him or her, and answer the question that drives us: Can two imperfect people form a perfect relationship that will inspire them to forsake all others, not as an obligation, but as a gift?

About the Author
Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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