I’m working with a brilliant young client who, through our work together, has divulged many things about his life including his childhood, his borderline obsession for pie, and his self-image. He is highly adaptable, independent, intelligent, and goal-oriented. He complains about his face, his profile, his skin, his hair, his “flaws”, and identifies as a “perfectionist”.
As a recovering perfectionist, this set off my alarm bells…
“Perfectionism… involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals (i.e. perfection) and a constant lack of satisfaction, irrespective of performance. Perfectionism is a chronic source of stress, often leaving the individual feeling that he/she is a failure. Perfectionistic individuals require themselves to be perfect. This constant expectation is a source of stress and contributes to maladaptive ways of coping.” (Canadian Psychological Association).
As perfectionists, we don’t have the mind to cut ourselves slack and if we can’t perform a task perfectly, we get angry, insult ourselves, call ourselves stupid, and we can even get to the point where we take more risks than usual in order to “punish” ourselves.
I believe we live in a society that teaches us not to like ourselves, and when people don’t like themselves (i.e. perfectionists), they scold themselves for making mistakes, attach unfounded (usually negative) meaning to arbitrary events, and see flaws in themselves that they expect others to see as well. Conversely, people who do like themselves step back and laugh at themselves for making mistakes, shrug their shoulders and accept circumstances that they can’t control as shit that happens.
Because I feel I’m on the other side of it now, I recognize the perfectionism and the “flaws” that the client, who I will refer to as Daniel, sees in himself, as products of the inability to accept himself for who and what he is, warts and all, as they say. He, like so many of us, has learned to see himself through the eyes of another, in this case, his father – a father who probably never liked himself either.
It seems to me that our identity is forged by others, at least for the most delicate and crucial years of our lives, and if we’re taught to see ourselves by people who don’t like themselves, we’re probably not going to come out on the naturally happy, content, and confident end of the self image spectrum. When Daniel sees through his father’s eyes, he sees flaws and imperfections, not the amazing person that he naturally is. Daniel internalized his father’s criticisms and grew to accept it as fact. He said himself, “the more people tell you the lie, the more you believe it.”
His saving grace is that he knows that it’s a lie.
Unfortunately, being molded by his father’s expectations has been the only experience and understanding of himself that Daniel has been allowed to see, and he hasn’t had the chance to discover himself from a place that he decides upon. It reminds me of a great and groovy 1973 Paul Simon tune, One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor. In other words, it’s all about perception, and who’s perception do we choose to see from.
Changing his image along with his identity will be about learning to see himself through new eyes and taking ownership of this new vision. With any luck, Daniel will grow to set his own boundaries, step outside of his identity imposed by his father, and actually like himself. Fancy that!