My perfectionist tendencies are so pronounced they’ve become a bit of a joke between me and my friends – we laugh about my neurotic, impossible thoughts, the way that I start haemorrhaging at the mere sight of a spelling error or beat myself up if I do so much as print out a wrong document.
I don’t know why it is that I’ve become like this, that anything remotely bad becomes catastrophic – and well, in my tiny worldview, just about everything, if not completely bad, could always be better. Then I discovered this book, Being Happy by Tal Ben-Shahar which, for the first time in my short but agonised 31 years of life, perfectly describes that mean, self-effacing, punishing Perfectionist persona that I have so artfully honed over the years. As far as definitions (and ironies) go, I am the perfect personification and embodiment of the Perfectionist that Ben-Shahar describes in every line of every page of that book.
According to Ben-Shahar, there are three main things that characterise a perfectionist:
– intense fears of failure
– rejection of difficult or painful emotions
– chronic inability to accept or appreciation success
Ultimately, what this means is that the perfectionist creates this little utopia inside her head and can never (or doesn’t want to) face reality – which has failure, difficult & painful emotions, ups & downs and *shock horror* real successes that can be celebrated.
This is completely true. I have a perfect vision of how everything should be done – from a trip to the mall, to writing that perfect article, to getting the perfect grades at school, to relationships, to even cooking a meal. Any slight hiccup or deviation from that planned trajectory upsets my world tremendously and frightens me. I cannot bear the thought of that vision / plan going wrong or going any other way than what I think it should be. Should something go wrong, it becomes catastrophic for me. If one little thing upsets the plan, I must give it up entirely because I am convinced, utterly and completely, that it has been doomed to fail from the onset.
Then, that messy, yucky thing about emotions: if something bad happens or if I feel anything at all uncomfortable, unpleasant or painful, I will do only one of two things – I “ruminate over the emotions obsessively” or I pop Xanax, one after another after another, and sleep, because when you sleep, you don’t have to face or feel the emotions. You can numb them out. (Hence my previous post). The book talks about how truly happy people are able to accept their emotions, see them for what they are, let them rise and stay and then finally go away. I can’t. For me, the emotions either move in with their entire extended family, or they shouldn’t be there at all. The problem with this, Ben-Shahar explains, is that when you block off negative emotions, you also block the good stuff. So perfectionists exist either in a constantly tormented state or they’re anaesthetised to feeling anything.
And success. Well, no, I don’t really know what it means to enjoy success because as far as I’m concerned, it could always be better, more, bigger. When I wrote my book and people congratulated me, I felt perhaps they were saying it only because they were my friends. In my own reality, I hated the book. When I got to the end of it, I thought of scrapping the whole thing and starting again. I hated that it wasn’t as good or as successful as a JK Rowling volume, or written as eloquently and beautifully as a Jeanette Winterson novella. It was, and will probably always be, just mediocre.
I don’t expect rousing cheers or sympathy when I feel this way. It’s not some kind of reverse psychology to fish for compliments and I resent it when people think that this is what it’s about, or when they double up on the cheerleading because all it does it highlight to me really just how unsatisfied I am with what I’m doing / feeling / fearing.
As well as outlining the traits of a perfectionist, Ben-Shahar also presents the happier alternative – the Optimalist (not to be confused with an Optimist), who is someone who will make the best (optimal) out of every situation, who is flexible enough to accept reality for what it is, warts and all, and adjust himself to enjoy the experiences along every journey, the good, the bad and the ugly. (The perfectionist doesn’t care about the journey – she just wants to get to the goal, as quickly and as painlessly as possible.)
So there are plenty of exercises in the book that I will need to work through, which make me cringe to even think of doing them because I know it will mean having to face some of those nasty emotions, and also because the exercises are about a journey in themselves; the perfectionist in me is already revolting. She’s asking why I need to spend so much time, so much energy and effort on this. Where is that magic switch that I could just flick to go straight from Perfectionist to Optimalist in as little time as possible?
But Being Happy isn’t about making that sudden switch from being a pure Perfectionist to a happy-clappy, Brady Bunch Optimalist. It explains that all of us exist somewhere on a continuum between the two, and the point of the book is to try to get us to move more towards the Optimalist side of the scale. It’s going to be a hard journey. A lot of the descriptions about Optimalists and the way they react (so much more positively) to situations around them feel completely foreign to me. I just can’t understand how someone can be so happy about accepting things as they are, actually accepting failure and using them as springboards for feeling happier. It’s about as real to me as a story about rainbow-coloured unicorns…. and you know it’s not easy to find a rainbow-coloured unicorn.
I’ve only just finished reading the book though and now the real work begins. More insights along the way as I (try to) learn to let go of the many tight bonds I’ve wrapped around myself and let loose a little. A perfectionist begins her journey to being less than perfect – and to enjoy it.