In the recently released documentary, David Foster: Off the Record, David Foster’s daughter noted that Foster, a prominent musical producer, was constantly searching for “that perfect something.” And I thought it was a brilliant way to conclude it. Foster, a workaholic, spent most of life composing and producing phenomenal music; yet, his achievements consistently failed to engender a sense of wholeness. Somehow, they never felt final, and he never believed he was good enough.
Success, like an old film, is perceived on a black and white screen, with the hope of an ultimate happy ending. The validation at the end of the rainbow drives perfectionists to attempt to reconfigure their lives into an idyllic state, conceiving of pure happiness as a mere arm’s reach away. The rags-to-riches story is an inspirational archetype utilized in history for both benignly motivational and nefarious ends: on the one hand, it can foster success; on the other, servitude. And, most of us, at one point or another, buy into it, as it presents a general blueprint for seemingly attainable goals; we simply have to try. But, what happens when our efforts and their outcomes don’t typify Hollywood endings? How do we then cope?
My clients, the perfectionistic ones, often resort to massive alcohol consumption, wondering why they can’t be smarter, more attractive, and more committed. They abuse alcohol to quiet their minds (and numb their feelings), which are relentless in their provision of reminders of everything they’ll never have and be. Each achievement is followed by a disqualification, a “Yea, but…”. In idealizing fame and wealth, essentially the upper class, and contrasting it to the lower classes and their apparent misery, they believe that, while most struggle, the special few are happy.
And, as significant, they believe that, due to their early struggles (and, often, unrelenting dedication), they deserve to experience ultimate joy and the financial security and status they believe that it entails. The thinking goes: I’ve felt so badly about myself for so long that I deserve to feel special. It’s as though one, somehow, can offset the other, the future can compensate for the past, making one’s suffering evade the trap of vanity. And those who’ve chronically worried about their financial well-being, sometimes, believe that they deserve to cease being concerned with their survival altogether.
On a quest for that perfect something, perfectionists seek material comfort, recognition of their specialness (and, sometimes, even suffering), to marry (or at least date) a highly attractive partner, and the guarantee that life will never revert back to the distressing early days. And, most importantly, the rainbow ends with the trophy of self-esteem. Finally, after the copious amount of suffering, the perfectionist can bask in the glow of his own approval.
At bottom, that perfect something is the ultimate validation that proves, without doubt, the specialness of the perfectionist. It’s that mythical, final rung that precludes external, and thus internal, criticism, and tells one that she’s arrived. You can call it heaven or ecstasy, but it’s the secular state of grace in which the captive finally believes that he’s good enough, for, before this point, being good enough and the best have merged into an inextricable whole.
The upside of this form of perfectionism is impossible to discount, as one can’t concretely indicate that its benefits aren’t real; it’s like attempting to convince someone who struggles with Alcohol Use Disorder that alcohol isn’t a joyful relaxer. Treatment is less about disqualifying the positive than it is about comparing the positive and negative aspects of both quitting and using to one another, and picking the better option.
My perfectionistic clients, some of them at least, believe in the rainbow’s end in the same way in which Gatsby believed in the green light. And they often double-down when challenged. When you believe that your life is only full of suffering, it’s difficult to dismiss your dream of heaven. Thus, like Gatsby, so many perfectionists refuse to open reality’s door, pretending not to hear its knocks. They believe like he believed, and they continue to suffer exactly like he did.
Maybe the quest and the hope to reach its end sustains them, but is it ever worth the sacrifice? We can ask David Foster.