We often tell ourselves one thing and do another. This common phenomenon, often referred to as hypocrisy, is shared by every tribe of each culture. We’re all hypocrites, even if we don’t want to admit it. In treatment, I often see my clients struggling with the contradictions of their behaviors and their explicit beliefs. And, in my practice, this insight is most relevant to the realm of perfectionism, wherein the individual is convinced of the reality of the rainbow’s end.
I often ask my clients, “Is perfection absolute, meaning that there’s an objective standard for all of us, or relative, meaning that what’s perfect to one person may not be to another?” Most of the time, they answer with the latter, yet continue to behave as though the former were true. So, how can that be? According to cognitive science, we have implicit and explicit beliefs, which can be misaligned with one another. The explicit beliefs tend to be the conclusions made through deliberate reasoning, or what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls System Two Thinking, and the implicit beliefs tend to be judgments granted to us by our early environments, such as those from our parents and other authority figures. Unfortunately, most of the time, we don’t have the motivation and/or time to engage in System Two Thinking, so we act on our biased conclusions, also known as System One Thinking.
Thus, if you were to ask my unconscious mind, it would tell you that perfection is absolute and attainable, that Jay Gatsby simply didn’t try hard enough. And if I allowed it to dominate my decision making, my life would appear as a relentless climb on an continuous ladder. Perfectionism is insidious because we often discount its existence, too ashamed to admit that we’re gripped by an obvious form of irrationality. For the most part, unless the individual is explicitly convinced of the possibility of manifesting it, perfectionists struggle to engage with their shadows, the irrational parts of them that they “shouldn’t” possess. Essentially, more perfectionism.
Through all of my episodic anxiety, I eventually accepted that I would always be an irrational person. I’ll continue to freak out about minor setbacks and beat myself up about minor mistakes. Although, with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the frequency of my panicked moments has significantly decreased, to believe in my total lack of absurdity is absurd in itself. Until the end, I’ll don the title of the absurd, anxious person. Sometimes, I won’t accept a rational conclusion because it feels too uncertain, even if the level of uncertainty is at about 10%. And, at others, my reasoning process will be overtaken by an unconscious urge to cherry-pick evidence (called mental-filtering). Still further, I’ll never fully eradicate my belief in objective perfection.
The examples are plentiful.
Therapy is lengthy because, as I’m sure your mind is already telling you, there’s no rainbow’s end, not for me or anyone else. But it’s still helpful to examine your implicit assumptions, even if you don’t actively espouse them. So, my clients and I take a journey into the world of perfection, exploring its meaning in different cultures and to various people. This process solidifies their belief that perfection is relative, at least for some period. For example: in exploring beauty around the world, we ask: “How did big breasts and big butts become ideals?” and “Do other cultures value alternative physical traits?” If you were to visit any of Thailand’s “Long Neck Villages,” you’d see women with elongated necks created by adding more of the golden rings already enveloping them. And, according to Wikipedia:
“In the population of the Mentawai people in Indonesia, the wife of the soon-to-be chief decides to have her teeth sharpened because she fears he will leave her if she does not become more beautiful. In their culture, having your teeth sharpened is a sign of great beauty.”
So, this leads us to physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote:
“There is no such thing as perfection, only the relentless, thirsty matching of an organism to its environment. That is the engine that drives evolution.”
He was essentially saying that what’s perfect in some context may not be in another. His reminder is always helpful because it allows me to acknowledge the absurdity of my striving when feeling burned-out. It’s good to know that perfection is possible in some limited context, like getting a 100% grade on an exam, but that that context is just one of many. At bottom, this is what’s known as gaining perspective.
To a great extent, our lives with always be defined by irrationality. And, at best, learning about implicit biases and distorted conclusions can help us become better critical thinkers and decision makers. I truly doubt I’ll ever overcome my clinical anxiety and, in a significant way, that makes me imperfect, especially due to my passion for philosophy and logic. Some days I care and some days I don’t. But, that’s kind of it; that’s the epitome of clinical progress. And, maybe, in some unknown or unacknowledged way, I’ve defeated perfectionism. Or maybe, that’s just my imperfect self yet again trying to absurdly grasp at perfection.