What do your flaws mean to you?
In our sessions, therapists inquire about the underlying symbolism of our clients’ struggles. Because most of what causes our grief means something to us. The implications tell us who we are and what we could and should expect of ourselves and the world in which we’re in. Take, for example, a grade on an exam. The grade may mean more to you than it would to another. To that individual, school may be insignificant or the exam and grade might be presented in a foreign language. Events aren’t just what they appear to be; our minds cultivate universes from them.
And so it goes for our perceived flaws. You can label the problem ‘Body Dysmorphia’ or perfectionism. Fundamentally, it’s all about meaning. Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams posits, “When caregivers are unreasonably exacting, or prematurely demanding, or condemnatory not only of unacceptable behavior, but also of accompanying feelings, thoughts, and fantasies, their children’s obsessive and compulsive adaptations may be more problematic.” (This can also be true for individuals whose caregivers tend to dote over and idealize them.) Narcissistic parents believe they, and by extension their children, have much more control over the world than they actually do. Consequently, my perfectionistic clients tend to personalize, the cognitive distortion (i.e. flawed way of reasoning) through which they take too much responsibility for their flaws. Additionally, they conceive of them in a Manichean, black and white, manner, where there are flaws within your control and then there are those which aren’t. As you can imagine, they have to eliminate the ones they believe they can.
So, a good question to ask someone struggling with low self-esteem is: What flaws would you accept? It helps the person on the other end begin to explore the core beliefs about their flaws. You’ll sometimes find that they can’t accept any flaw, which evolves into a dialogue about why any flaw automatically disqualifies someone and, in addition, what it disqualifies them from. However, at others, they’ll say something resembling, “Well, that flaw is out of my control, but this flaw means I’m lazy.” Here, implied, is their sacred duty to wash away their ostensive sins. Whether it’s an imperfect nose, thin lips, or even one’s IQ (although some believe it’s purely innate), the perfectionist obsesses over her target, wholeheartedly subscribing to the belief in the practicality of her endeavor.
Utilizing self-discipline, she trains herself to mainly focus on one thing yet fails to ask herself why that thing is so important. Society feeds us its stereotypes through our caregivers and peers. So, for example, labeling ourselves lazy because we believe we aren’t trying hard enough to learn something we just can’t seem to grasp is founded on a stereotype. In this case, that which tells you that incomprehension equals slothfulness. And, to many, excess weight also serves as a symbol for that trait.
Many of my clients reverse the fundamental attribution error, wherein, in their cases, they link their failures to their characters, with each individual associating them with her shameful essence. Whereas most attempt to blame their defeats on external sources, such as unfairness, perfectionists believe that their natures constitute the root causes of (most of) their ills. Thus, we return to personalizing, taking too much responsibility for negative, personal events.
In some sense, perfectionism is a type of addiction, where one utilizes shame to reach impressive heights. As I write this, there’s an element of shame. I’m tired, it’s been a long day and, yet, I still feel compelled to write. How can I become great, or lovable, if I don’t, especially since I won’t be able to tomorrow? The internal guilt-tripper possesses a world-view that necessitates further exploration. And, arguments, as good as they are, need to be balanced with external affection. The point of them is to afford the perfectionist the possibility of risking interpersonal rejection and accepting love.
I know you’re probably thinking that some of those flaws can be changed. But, the problem with perfectionism is that it entails the belief that most flaws can be, which simply isn’t true. So, they eventually get stuck. Competence and appearance will always have their limits. Additionally, as they emotionally adapt to their positive changes (the improvements made), they tend to begin to dwell on other imperfections, even the ones they believe they cannot alter. And, sometimes, they, again, convince themselves they can.