In a previous article, The Tortilla Leaks From Both Ends, I stated that the perfectionist tendencies I personally harbor may not be as healthy a personality characteristic as I’ve wanted to believe throughout most of my life. Shattering my belief that all my efforts to avoid failure were commendable enabled me to realize that one of the real criteria for living well is an individual’s ability to truly accept themselves, regardless of how much they achieve or fail. To better understand, it may help you to re-read that article. (It’s on my website, www.dredreitman.com.)
My patient, Steven, a 38-year-old engineer, provides a quintessential example of the same dynamics. He said, “Things are pretty good. My relationship with my wife is the best it’s ever been. We made the decision to sell our home and move closer to town and I can’t begin to tell you how much stress that’s taken off me. At work, despite all those months I griped about it in therapy, things are going tremendously well. I’ve been promoted and I’m dealing with top management on a daily basis. They seem to see my worth and value my efforts. It appears I have a real future in the company. Still and all, something continues to gnaw at me. I frequently experience a tense, sick feeling in my stomach. I still procrastinate. I find myself spinning my wheels, looking over papers I’ve already reviewed and feeling a sense of urgency over things I have to do. Even though I know I’m capable and I’m on top of a lot of things others in the company aren’t aware of, I continue to second-guess myself and fear people will discover how inadequate I am. I realize it has nothing to do with reality, yet it seems to have a life of its own and I can’t stop it. You’ve always said that I choose to cling to problems at work, but that my job isn’t the issue. Now, I’m beginning to think I created these concerns to explain where my stress is coming from. But, things are going well and I still feel the same way.”
Let me fill you in. The more you know about Steven, the more likely you would describe him as a “fixer”. There are lots of them around. They don’t necessarily like that term. Most would prefer to call themselves “problem solvers”, individuals who see difficulties and resolve them. It lends a sense of appropriateness and social acceptability to their actions. Sometimes, as Steven suggested, they go so far as to create problems that they can solve. But, in almost every instance, their anxiety stems from a perceived lack of worth and a sense of insufficiency which permeates their self concept. Fixing things, being the quintessential caretaker, is their way of building themselves up. It provides them with a temporary sense of adequacy, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of friends, family and associates. Their plight is that, no matter how many problems, people or situations they fix, it doesn’t permanently alter their feelings of inadequacy. Consequently, they wind up on an emotional treadmill, needing to seek out problems in order to resolve them.
This behavior pattern can stem from two radically opposite forms of early parental treatment. On the one hand, because of parents who are critical and fault-finding to the point they destroy their children’s sense of worth. On the other, from excessively supportive parents who heap praise on their children and push them to excel by assuring them they possess superior talents, which later results in their children feeling , “I can never be good enough.
In both instances, these children, whether subject to early criticism, or exposed to constant reassurance of their ability to perform, wind up in the same emotional boat. They either, 1) desperately try to achieve, to gain the love and respect they desire or, 2) feel constant pressure to meet the expectations of “loving” parents they can’t fault for fear of losing their affection, or, 3) give up on themselves, feeling they’ll never be sufficient enough to deserve the praise they yearn for. In the end, they wind up living lives filled with a gnawing sense of anxiety, needing to perform, feeling inadequate and desperately trying to fix themselves and others.
As I described in the previous article, my concern over my wife and children’s behavior stemmed not only from a desire for them to be better individuals (at least that was my rationale), but, more importantly, from my need to “fix” them, because, if they had problems which I couldn’t solve, my sense of worth would be depreciated. It’s not unusual behavior. Individuals frequently put themselves in positions of mentoring and aiding others in order to enhance their own sense of self worth. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help others. It does mean that you must learn to accept them, as well as yourself, with the idiosyncracies and shortcomings they possess. It further suggests that, by virtue of that acceptance, each of you will be better able to risk potential failure, to face new challenges and even to alter old behaviors because of your increased sense of well being.
In contrast, when your sense of self worth is derived from satisfying the expectations of others, you inevitably end up becoming a “good guy” or “good gal”, subjugating your own needs and desires, even your own thoughts. The rationale being they’re so fragile, they’d fall apart if you dealt with them honestly, or if they had to cope with life without your help. That orientation enables you to live a socially admirable life, oftentimes admired and liked by others for your good nature, generosity and kindness. All the while, you hide the anxiety you harbor, the resentment you feel and the depression you experience. Unless you are able to see yourself clearly, to recognize that you need to live your life with a healthy sense of entitlement, with concern for what you believe and desire, you are destined to “live a quiet life of desperation”, experience an unhappy, dysfunctional, emotionally empty marriage and never realize the joy that life has to offer.