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How to recognize, understand, and cope with "destructive perfectionist tendencies"
on April 5, 2009
In the poem "Richard Cory" written by Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) and first published in 1897, the first two stanzas identify Cory as "a gentleman from sole to crown, /clean favored and imperially slim" who "fluttered pulses when he said, /`Good morning,' and glittered when he walked." Then in the two remaining stanzas, Robinson adds
"And he was rich--yes, richer than a king--
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
"So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head."
In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that many people (as well as fictional characters) fail to lead a full and fulfilling life because they do not allow themselves "to experience the full range of human emotions" and thus limit their capacity for happiness. They need to give themselves the permission to be human...to ground [their] dreams in reality and appreciate [their] accomplishments." Throughout this book, Ben-Shahar refers to negative perfectionism simply as perfectionism and to positive perfection ism as optimalism. "The key difference between the Perfectionist an the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it...as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success."
Ben-Shahar organizes his material within three Parts: First, he presents his theory and explains how to accept failure, emotions, success, and reality; next, he focuses on applications of the theory with regard to optimal education, work, and love; and then in Part 3, he asks his reader to participate in a series of ten meditations: Real Change, Cognitive Therapy, Imperfect Advice, A Perfect New World, The Role of Suffering, The Platinum Rule, Yes, but...The Pro-Aging Industry, The Great Deception, and finally, Knowing and Not-Knowing. It is soon obvious that v cares deeply about helping as many people as possible to recognize a painful paradox: "when we do not allow ourselves to experience painful emotions, we limit our capacity for happiness. All our feelings [e.g. both terror and serenity] flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. And these painful emotions only expand and intensify when they aren't released. When they finally break through - and they eventually break through in one way or another - they overwhelm us," as they did Richard Cory.
Who will derive the greatest value from reading this book? First, those who are struggling to recognize, understand, and cope with their own "destructive perfectionist tendencies" and/or those of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. For me, one of Ben-Shahar's most important points is that each person is both a Perfectionist and an Optimalist. This suggests one of Carl Rogers' most important points: The happiest people are those who are most comfortable living in their own body, people who (in Ben-Shahar's words) "give themselves permission to be human." This is what Walt Whitman acknowledges in Song of Myself:
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
All of us are large and contain multitudes. The challenge is to recognize and understand this complexity because only then can we accept it and, in some instances, celebrate it as Whitman does. When concluding his book, Ben-Shahar shares some thoughts that will also serve as an appropriate conclusion to this brief discussion of it: "Perfectionism and optimalism are not distinct ways of being, an either-or choice, but rather they coexist in each person. And while we can move from perfectionism toward optimalism, we never fully leave perfectionism behind and never fully reach optimalism ahead. The optimalism ideal is not a distant shore to be reached but a distant start that guides us and can never be reached. As Carl Rogers pointed out, `The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.'" I agree. However, for many of those who read this book, Tal Ben-Shahar offers invaluable advice on how to plan and then conduct their own journey of self-discovery.