Perfectionism Hangover

Perfectionism is a dangerous cocktail. A few sips early in life can have undesirable long-terms effects. Typically comprised of 80-proof attention, with an external validation chaser, perfectionism is rarely taken straight. Most often, it’s a mixed drink that includes, self-worth, ego and esteem in unhealthy ratios.

Perfectionism isn’t just “a glass of wine with dinner” — there’s nothing wrong with aiming to do your best. Instead, it’s a beer bong fed from the keg. One feels obligated to chug away until the cheers and accolades of the onlookers is attained. But those accolades always seem to be receding, so the chugging continues. And continues.

But this can only be maintained for so long, and eventually the perfectionist becomes a teetotaler. You can’t fail at something you don’t attempt. And the perfectionist, like the one shot-gunning a beer, has wrapped up their identity as someone who is the best beer shot-gunner there is. Better to rely on your established reputation as a party animal if you’re unable to maintain the same level of drinking prowess. You might end up puking, and that would be a devastating revelation that you’ve sank low from your former glory. But there is another solution. 

I had a small “recovering perfectionist” epiphany the other day, mulling over the changes in my life, behavior and perspective from a few years ago compared to today. No doubt, these were inspired by (yet another) re-listening to Pressfield’s “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro” audiobooks. I’ve come to believe that Pressfield’s concept of “Resistance” is deeply rooted in and gains its power from perfectionism. At least for me.

It struck me the other day that I was dealing with a Perfectionism Hangover. Just like its counterpart in alcohol, I am slowly realizing and recalling my behavior while I was “under the influence”. Much of it hazy, and much of it with regret.

The perfectionist, like the alcoholic, is chasing a buzz from the past that can never be achieved again. Those dopamine receptors have been long burned-out — overloaded by shots of external validation, and freebased attention.

Unlike the alcoholic, the perfectionist seeks something that never existed. At least the alcoholic is enjoying bein drunk at the moment. The perfectionist enjoys none of what they are doing. One is always in panic mode, Defcon-9, Emergency Alert. Anxiety and adrenaline are the neurotransmitter cocktails of choice.

Perfection junkies also don’t realize until they have wrangled themselves free of the grips of the foe that what they’ve done has been to invert countless other beliefs into unhealthy ones, in order to fit the underlying erroneous belief of the way they’ve come to believe things work. Let me explain.

The perfectionist believes they need to impress other people with their abilities. This is because they have placed their self-worth into those talents. Often, the perfectionist can run into something just as bad as — or worse than — harsh criticism: indifference. Now, like anyone else, the perfectionist believes others see the world as they do, or at least that they are mostly correct in their interpretation of “how things work”. This results in the beliefs that other people are looking at the world through Perfectionism Goggles”. In actuality, the only other people who do this are other perfectionists.

Therefore, the perfectionist sees criticism (if they are lucky to get even that attention) and the far more prevalent indifference as a conscious judgment by others. They are “withholding” praise through lack of attention. And this is perceived as being direct towards them, not just their work.

The truth, however, is that these people quite simply, and impersonally, don’t give a shit. It’s not on their radar. At all. One bit. Even those that do actually show some interest are, in Pressfield’s astute observation that these people are “so caught up in their own bullshit that they don’t have two seconds to worry about yours or mine, or to reject or diminish us because of it.”

The perfectionist then is chasing something that can never be had, and then in the most cruelst of fate-twists, perceives this as a reflection and indicator of their self worth. They have literally based their self-worth on something that doesn’t even exist. But not knowing this, they work even harder to impress, strive more urgently to receive external validation, and either overwork themselves into oblivion or find destructive habits to avoid ever doing that work at all, to gain that attention.

This is the Perfectionist Hangover. The hindsight eureka that you’ve been spending years and probably multiple decades in pursuit of a phantom. Worse yet, one concocted by you yourself. You are the Alcoholic Bartender. Or like Bob Arctor in Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”, you’re (spoiler alert) an undercover narcotics officer unknowingly tracking your undercover persona when sober. You are the magician and the audience.

You realize you’ve been operating under unfair, unattainable rules the entire time, but you were the one who established those rules and eventually forgot that key bit of information. You are the bartender serving yourself shot after shot to try and reach the seemingly unattainable high whose only obstacles are not only illusory, but were put in place by you.

At least the alcoholic has hangovers after each drinking binge to regularly remind them of what’s going on. The perfectionist can go years without even realizing they’ve been sitting on a barstool this entire time.

Here’s to you, and to me. Here’s to closing time, may it find you sooner rather than later. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. There’s an all-night diner down the street if you want to join me for a coffee. It’s time to sober up.

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