How are perfectionists made? How can they be healed?
In logotherapy we recognize the unity of the person and we particularly focus on the spiritual dimension. There is a kind of obsessive compulsion that does not stem from an ego concern with reward or punishment that would indicate a psychological neurosis. Nor is it a response to superego demands based on societal standards and pressures.
The perfectionist suffers from a noögenic neurosis that is driven by the fear of failing to be perfect.
This is radically different from internalized societal demands. What we’re seeing is a person overly concerned with doing what is right according to the dictates of conscience.
This is an affliction that very ethically-minded individuals are prone to suffer from and therefore need to understand more deeply.
What is the Logotherapeutic answer at the very heart of the matter?
This is the challenge and question Dr. Teria Shantall posed to us, upon discussion of a case study that fit this description.
The first thing that came to mind for me when contemplating this was the question: What makes conscience dysfunctional?
The answer I gave myself was: There is a spiritual imbalance. If we refer back to Rambam’s “middle” or “upright” path as a model, we can certainly add this quality to the list. Conscience is a way of looking at one’s self responsibly. The responsible person is aware of where he is situated spiritually at the moment and knows what he can and should expect of himself. In Logotherapeutic language, he has both a realistic and optimistic view of self. He knows where he is now and what the next step he has to take is. Furthermore he is aware of the meaning of the reality in front of him and does what he has to do in response to it. He knows how to gauge all the factors that play into a situation.
What are the extremes of looking at one’s self responsibly? At one end is indifference. At the other end is excessive concern with doing what is right, which indicates an excessive sense of responsibility.
As Rambam says, extremists have either an excessive amount or complete deficiency in a particular human quality. The perfectionist has an excess of responsibility and a dysfunctional fear of making a mistake.
Can there be such a thing as too much responsibility?
Responsibility is excessive when the person hurts himself or others because of it. He may be constantly indecisive or immobilized out of fear of getting it wrong. He may try to take on more than is possible for him and make himself sick. He may be disproportionately upset over a mistake.
These reactions show an individual who:
• Has unrealistic expectations of himself
o Does not understand that mistakes are a requirement of the learning process
o Is unable to trust himself and unwilling to take risks
• Has a misperception of personal responsibility
If he correctly perceived personal responsibility he would know that he:
Need not do it all himself; it’s not all up to him
Can seek divine assistance, which the perfectionist will not do even if he claims to believe in divine assistance on an intellectual level
Can delegate responsibility
Usually shares the guilt for wrongdoing with others
What is missing for the perfectionist is what Frankl called a basic trust in being. There is an intense hyper-reflection and self-focus in such a person. He is watching his every move to see if it will be right. There is an intense hyper-intention to have to be perfect. You are always guilty because nothing you do can ever be right enough, to your mind.
In this picture the person inside is absent.
The logotherapeutic answer is to restore and strengthen one’s basic trust in being,
In therapy you make the person feel embraced in his or her human-ness. Part of being human is to be vulnerable and to make mistakes. The growth has to come from trusting the self to be acceptable with warts and all, to feel unconditionally loved.
Secondly the emphasis is on what the person really values.
What a person needs is to have unconditional faith in the unconditional meaningfulness of life. This is what God has for us. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect. God is with us, forgives us, has patience, guides us and never leaves us. We must know that we are unconditionally accepted and loved.
Why do people fear not being perfect? Why are they afraid to risk making mistakes? Because they think God’s love is conditional, dependent on their being perfect. But it’s not. God never gives up on us. God wants us to grow and expect more of ourselves but this is an outgrowth of the love not a condition of it.
We must not fall into the trap of absence of responsibility that is a side-effect of misunderstanding the meaning of unconditional love. That love is unconditional doesn’t mean that you can do whatever is wrong and hurtful and nothing you do matters because “God will forgive you.”
To love unconditionally is to love in spite of the person’s mistakes and imperfections, while expectantly and lovingly guiding the person to smooth out those imperfections. This is the nature of God’s love for us. We don’t have to earn love and acceptance and worry that maybe if I do this thing better or that thing more perfectly I’ll be loved. The love is there no matter what.
To be aware of God’s unconditional love for us is to know that we are loved warts and all – and to feel responsible for our own self-growth and development because being loved and being in a committed relationship demands an attitude that says: “I know you have invested in me. I am committed to this relationship and this investment.”
Knowing that we are responsible and we are loved and invested in is what perfects us.
Paradoxical Intention is a technique that essentially draws from the wellspring of trust.
Frankl says what you fear you will do, you will never actually do. It’s an exaggerated conscience and a fear you can’t live up to what’s beyond you.
Making the client do what he or she fears, already releases the person. You say to the person: “If you are afraid of stammering, stammer on purpose. Dare to step out and be imperfect. You can never live up to the standards that are absolutely beyond you.
The function of absolute standards is to have a vision of something to reach towards. But the only absolute perfection is God, and that we can never be.
This is when we move closer to the person inside.
What is required by conscience is to strive for excellence not because you “better be perfect or else ” but out of absolute commitment to the value of what you are striving for.
The self-evaluation of where I am right now determines the tasks that are mine to do at this time. Information about yourself becomes in-formation. It’s formative because you don’t obsess over yourself but only look at yourself only long enough to determine which way to go and then go there.
And we can only move out of the space we are in from a position of the security of knowing we are loved both here and there and knowing the value of where we’re going.