Since no achievement is without its downside and each one can be criticized (luck and other people are always contributors) and even devalued via reduction to its flaws, the perfectionist constantly searches for unqualified success to prove his worth: pure evidence of his excellence.
The quote on the image above is taken from the film Cool Runnings, a story about an underdog bobsled team from Jamaica that tries to compete in the olympics. In it, John Candy played disgraced olympic gold medalist, Irv Blitzer, who was caught cheating in a bobsled race and subsequently banned from competing in the sport. Eventually, Blitzer agreed to coach a bunch of guys who, after failing to qualify for the olympic track competition, decided to try their hand at bobsledding. As the film progressed, the team’s captain, Derice Bannock, asked Blitzer why he cheated, considering that he had everything an individual could want: respect, status, love, and wealth. Blitzer’s response is one I often cite in therapy and on our podcast.
Think of the gold medal as evidence, which you may or may not accept, pointing toward a particular belief. If your underlying beliefs about yourself are negative, positive pieces of information will bounce off of you. So, if you’re ugly, then you’ll discount evidence that indicates you’re beautiful. If you’re terrible, you’ll discount the good you’ve done for others, saying to yourself, “That doesn’t count because I’m still a bad person.” And, if you believe that you’re a failure, you’ll find a way to even discount something like a gold medal. Global beliefs about ourselves aren’t changed by simple achievements. (Unless the individual cycles between grandiosity in feeling too good about themselves and self-loathing in feeling too badly.) That feeling of being unworthy isn’t invalidated by one victory, even if it is a gold medal and one does accept its validity as an achievement. Essentially, our minds can, sometimes, really suck.
When evidence contends with our core beliefs, they usually win; but, only because we allow them to. Because we’re so afraid of being wrong and appearing stupid, we don’t allow our minds to examine the information that we’re granted. Sometimes, our logic makes sense, as when we tell ourselves that we received a compliment because we asked for another’s opinion and they were simply being nice. At others, it doesn’t, as when we discount being spontaneously told that we’re attractive. In that type of scenario, it’s unlikely that everyone is just exhibiting compassion, even those who aren’t prompted. But, our minds are often rigid, because they try to protect us from feeling pain. It’s difficult for us to get our hopes up only to be devastated in the end.
And, all of this feels as though it’s outside of our control, but it isn’t. We have the ability to decide on whether or not we’ll allow ourselves to analyze what’s in front of us, since we’re the ones who discount the evidence and, implicitly, choose to accept our initial conclusions without further deliberation. In the same vain, internalized racism continues to creep up in my sessions, as some of my clients find it difficult to accept themselves because they aren’t white and, thus, don’t resemble the caucasian stereotypes of beauty. When someone tells them they’re attractive, they quickly discount the evidence, convinced they’re being lied to. For, how can they be beautiful if their features are so unusual?
And, like with Blitzer, no matter how much evidence they’re presented with, they create ways to hold onto what they’ve always believed. Core beliefs are strong intuitions that were reinforced over a lengthy period. So, when someone asserts that they still feel like they’re a failure, they’re directing you to a core belief. And, as we already know, intuitions are often wrong. But, and this is the difficult part, the work involves sitting with them while examining the evidence, and the inner turmoil can become debilitating. Fortunately, intuitive thoughts can eventually be reframed, but it won’t, and can’t, occur overnight.
To feel like he was enough, Blitzer would have had to have mustered the courage to sit with his fears that his core beliefs would be validated by the evidence and the inner conflict that ensues when they clash with what we’re shown. The work requires nuanced thinking, seeing oneself with all of her flaws, accepting that she, like everyone else, has them. And it requires a reckoning of your values, assessing how they affect your emotional anatomy. For Blitzer, his gold medal could never be enough because his intuition remained strong, preventing him from ever feeling his own worth. But, he always could have made the choice to overcome his fear and look into his own depths. What does it mean to be successful? How can you ever become good enough? These are the questions that life poses to each of us, and, thankfully, we get to decide what do with its information.