Perfectionism is killing us

More people than ever say they’re feeling pressured to look and be the best. It’s taking a toll.

So writes Christie Aschwanden in her recent Vox article.

Once an issue that affected a select few, perfectionism is now a growing cultural phenomenon, fueled by modern parenting and social media and an increasingly competitive economy, researchers say.

It’s a brilliant article, and well worth the read. I only wish more Americans were aware of the cultural engineering that has taken place of the past 100± years which gave us this ‘fatal mental health risk’. Examining the twentieth century in particular; Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, Public Relations (i.e. Propaganda) and the Century of the Self… the Frankfurt School, The Macy Conferences, Norbert Wiener, and the Cyberneticians… Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, The Third Wave, and the ’prosumer’… for instance, all belie a deeper undercurrent of influence – and intent.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and social engineering has risen to a whole new level. From Sean Parker’s startling confession, to Michal Kosinski’s astonishing work, to Google’s Selfish Ledger and Lamarckian epigenetics, to Chamath Palihapitiya’s warnings at Stanford Graduate School of Business, to memetic warfare and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene… to Bill Gates’ “smart” city in the desert and Alphabet’s [Google] Sidewalk Labs “smart” city on the lake, and Saudi Arabia’s “smart” NEOM on the sea… It seems there is a tireless ongoing effort to ‘out-socially-engineer’ the last generation’s / iteration’s efforts. The danger it seems, coming full circle in a manner of sorts, is found in technologist, Bill Joy’s April Fool’s (April 1) 2000 Wired Magazine article, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. Once again, it seems this dilemma has been long in the making.

Look around these days, and you can find perfectionism “everywhere,” said Thomas Curran, a psychologist at the University of Bath. … In an age where social media makes it possible to constantly compare your own life to others, perfectionism has only become amplified.

As I look to the future, I can’t help be reminded of the echoes of the past… warnings, including those of the American Founding Fathers of the Constitutional Republic, cautioning against imprudence, and exhorting us to a steady, cautious course forward, maintaining eternal vigilance and a watchful eye for cupidity, corruption, and the intrigues of cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men. As I reflect, and look forward, I can’t help wonder what might be the purpose and underlying message of labeling generations; ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’… After all, what comes after ‘Z’…?

Treating perfectionism, Hewitt said, is somewhat like working with a child who is afraid of an imaginary monster under their bed. He remembers a patient who self-identified as a perfectionist who casually mentioned in their first meeting that when she was five years old, her parents had sent her away to live with relatives while they arranged the family’s overseas move. She remembered being reunited with her mother after the absence and being transfixed by how beautiful she looked. After that, she made it her life’s work to be the perfect daughter, with the subconscious hope that if only she were perfect she’d never be separated from her mother again. Cases like these, Hewitt explained, are often more about the underlying relationship than anything else.

One could easily argue, this is precisely the plight of largely misunderstood types like Rachel Dolezal. Those who are familiar with her upbringing, and see beyond the stalkarazzi ambush narrative realize it is very likely a variant of this challenge with which she struggled. Her struggle was, and perhaps remains less about “cultural [mis]appropriation and fraud”, and more about garnering from her parents an acceptance and perhaps even elevated status she saw others from distant shores receive. Again, the same kind of Perfectionism with which so many in America now struggle. In this way, it turns out, she’s not so different.

Ironically, many people pursue perfectionism with the belief that striving for perfection will make them more acceptable to other people, but instead what more often happens is that they’re perceived as prickly, guarded or hostile, Hewitt says. “It’s meant to garner acceptance and closeness to others, but instead, it pushes people away — that’s the neurotic paradox.”

Magee’s perfectionism made it difficult for her to build friendships. She was always seeking recognition and affirmation, rather than the vulnerable human connections that friendships require. “I would have relationships, but they were performative, not authentic,” she said.

Eventually Magee, now 26 and living in Seattle and working as a co-dependency recovery coach, learned that she had to let go a little and allow herself to show up with all her imperfections.

Maybe it’s time we stopped listening quite so intently to the social engineers and cultural architects, and just got back to the basics of life. As we seek to do so, let us not forget the warnings of men like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson regarding our financial affairs – and particularly, the dangers of central banking, and a fiat-based, so-called fractional reserve economy.