We think of addiction as entailing some sort of substance, whether a drug, alcohol, or even a video game that produces euphoria. In it, its captives bask in the warmth of lovability as their brains engender surpluses of dopamine and norepinephrine. Addiction, when transformed from a desire to a necessity, becomes all-encompassing for the user, taking hold of his ability to make rational choices while subjugating his value system as it reaches its tentacles in the deepest crevices of his spirit.
When conceived in the common mind, addiction appears as an external object taking possession of a naïve psyche. But, unbeknownst to us is a more insidious form stemming from humble roots. We teach our children that success and self-esteem are intimately intertwined, that one’s self-image ought to be linked with her achievements. These seemingly benign assumptions encompasses a belief in conditional self acceptance, the stance that I’m acceptable, or worthy, if I achieve. Whether intentional or not, parents espousing rugged-individualism, that it’s solely up to us to create our happiness, imply, if not outright state, that one doesn’t deserve to be happy if he doesn’t develop it. So, if you don’t feel worthy, or happy, you only have yourself to blame.
And, an extreme belief tends to foster an extreme reaction. If self-esteem is solely tied to success, then I should spend my time creating and maintaining it. Life is, thus, spent on a perpetual hamster wheel, with the accompanying terror of loss and sadness over even minor setbacks. The high chased is success, embodied in ‘wow’. If success belongs to the worthy, then ‘wow’ is its marker; it’s beginning, middle, and end. As the addict pursues the psychoactive ingredient in his chosen drug, the perfectionist pursues the admiration of ‘wow’. It’s a feeling that most of us know, despite the reality of few overcoming it.
Black and white thinking, which I reference often, in the context of self-esteem means that we think of people as either wonderful or terrible, good or bad. And the wonderful side is associated with admiration, when we ‘wow’ those around us. In the incipient stage, we receive a taste of the toxin that eventually shackles us. Then, the dependency ensues.
As with anything else, the ‘wow’ factor isn’t good or bad; it depends on each person and their conception of human value. To define human value as unconditional and absolute implies that achievement is a mere addition to an already healthy sense of self-worth. From the beginning point of being good enough, the individual may feel better about herself or simply enjoy her success as multi-determined, with factors in and outside of her control. She’s sad when she loses, and happy when she wins; but her emotions aren’t related to her fundamental sense of self, which is untouchable.
The ideas espoused can be considered Stoic, but I think they’re even more basic than that. Imagine being a kid and failing a test or losing a game, what would your mom have told you? Would she have called you worthless or noted the significance of your attempt? Would you have felt loved, or believed that her love depended on your outcome? Some of us essentially know that winning and losing shouldn’t solely relate to who we believe we are; they can only add or subtract to and from it in some minor way. I might be terrible at baseball or chess, but I’m not stupid or worthless. I may enjoy my success, or feel great about myself due to some achievement, but I would never allow them to significantly define me.
The healthy attitude is in stark contrast to unhealthy perfectionism. For, the perfectionist chases the ‘wow’ and defines herself by it. I’m nothing when the applause fades; if I can even, initially, accept it. And, my life becomes one big obsession, fueled by the prospect of adoration and the dread of deprivation. Most of my life was lived in that state, hoping to get a fix from the next grade, achievement, or comment. Social media, school, and my writing existed in the service of ‘wow’. If it wasn’t great, if I wasn’t, then I was terrible. Like an addict, when my fix was absent, my mind flooded with all of the notions I had of myself. The mask was the only barrier protecting my inner open wounds from deepening.
For addicts of perfection, losing the ‘wow’ is akin to losing oneself, as though the silence implies an existential erasure, creating a void that refuses to hint at a trace of your former existence. The ‘wow’ mirrors back our significance, without which we die. In our minds, we’re either important or nothing, unseen by the world. In its simplicity and apparent banality, the word gives and takes everything that we are. And in its wake, leaves the destruction of a rapacious tornado.