A few weeks ago I sent out a HeartWorks newsletter about absolutist thinking. There were some suggestions for what to do with absolutist thinking, but some of you were wanting to understand this some more. Absolutist thinking is connected to perfectionism, so I thought I’d explore that to help you get a sense of what you might to do to support yourself if you find yourself thinking in absolute terms in a way that causes you suffering. Absolutist thinking can lead you to perfectionistic behavior, and this can be very painful.
Perfectionism is the belief that there is absolutely one right way to do things and that we have the power to do each thing in that particular way to get a desired outcome. It tells us that when we try hard enough we will achieve that one right absolute result which will ultimately make people like us and will guarantee our acceptance and love. Absolutist thinking is the belief in a definite sequence of events and perfectionism is the striving to control our environment to achieve that sequence of events.
Let’s break it down. Perfectionism says:
- For every situation there is most likely a problem because my negativity bias teaches me to always be on the lookout for problems.
- Every problem has a reason and I can/should know that reason.
- There is a way to address each reason, a solution, and I can/should know what that is.
- There are definite steps to take to achieve a solution, and I can/should know what every step is.
Perfectionism tells us that we are responsible for following this sequence of reasoning and for acting on it for every situation that defines who we are. And for perfectionists, most situations define who we are because we are part of it, therefore, in our mind, responsible for it.
Let’s go back even further.
Many, if not all, perfectionists learned to be that way at a very young age. Perfectionism tells us that we have ultimate control over our surroundings, if we just work hard enough to get what we need. What do children need? To be loved. So, in a child’s developing brain, if I just work hard enough, I’ll get the love I need. The travesty in this statement is the assumption that a child should have to work for love. Many children do get the love they need, and they don’t develop a belief that they have to earn it, but perfectionists got the message early on that they did have to work to earn it.
This kind of thinking can arise for a number of reasons. Maybe we had a perfectionist parent, and so we took on that legacy burden of believing that if we just tried hard enough we could make things perfect. Maybe our parent was afraid that we would live the kind of unsatisfying life they had led, and so they instill in us a sense of fear of failure in order to make sure we don’t fail. Maybe our parent only intermittently gave us love and in our mind we learned that if we consistently tried hard enough we would eventually be rewarded with some love (research tells us that this is the most effective kind of reward system to motivate behavior, similarly to the intermittent reward for gamblers with slot machines).
And so the perfectionist child is developing an addiction – an addiction to the scarce commodity of love. Why do children need love? Because that’s how they survive – when they are given love they get everything that comes with it like food, shelter and nurturing. This addiction is about survival.
Shame plays its part here as well because shame is the fear of not being loved and the resultant rejection from the tribe (ie threat to an individual’s survival) that comes from that. So perfectionism is an addiction designed to avoid shame. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a tiny being.
Neurons that fire together wire together, so when a child is continually intermittently loved and their brain does the math and sees that eventually they will be loved if they just work out the right combination of behaviors, their brain will wire itself to be on the continual look-out for opportunities to manipulate their environment in order to get the love they need. The power in intermittent conditioning is that it relies on the poor subject to believe that there will be a reward if they try hard enough.
And so, perfectionism is the result of this wiring. An example: “If I am totally vigilant and totally responsive to every situation and can categorically provide what is needed (by others) in every situation I will be loved, accepted, and will avoid shame.” The bit about being “totally vigilant” and “totally responsive” is what turns this whole way of being into an addiction.
So what is the main problem with this way of being? The tragic fact that it’s not true. I can’t always do what everyone around me wants me to do. I can’t always make those around me happy. I don’t ultimately, have control over the people and situations in my environment. Perfectionism is an empty promise, a God that doesn’t exist, the little man behind the Wizard of Oz. But try telling that to a brain whose very survival learned to develop based on the assumption of ultimate power and ultimate responsibility. It’s a hard sell.
So, what do we do?
Firstly, we do our best to understand the brain science and how natural and normal it was, if we had that kind of childhood, to have developed the perfectionist mindset. And then work to understand and accept it some more. And then do that again. And do that again. Maybe we validate our personal development history over and over and over for years. What we’re doing here is telling ourselves, “This was not my fault. It makes sense, but I did not create my perfectionism.” Simply validating this reality helps us to start to relax around the problem. While we are caught up in the mechanics and effects of perfectionism, and we ignore the deathly frightened child who adapted the best they knew how in order to stay alive, we can’t get to the root of the issue.
- Getting the help of a professional, like a therapist, can help greatly with this process.
- Meditating, using self-compassion techniques, will also help.
- Reading about this topic is a great way to get our brain involved in understanding itself (see reading list at the end of this article).
- You might find a photograph of yourself as a child and put that on your meditation altar or your desktop, to start to get in touch with that little being. This might feel a bit strange, but developing a relationship with that little one, from your adult perspective, can help you to accept him or her, to offer the kind of love and acceptance any child needs.
Next, we allow ourselves to get in touch with the pain of that little child. This might take the help of a professional like a therapist. Doing a Mindful Self-Compassion course or a shame resilience course will certainly help us to stay with ourselves when we’re facing these difficult emotions. Staying with ourselves, which means not abandoning that inner child, and allowing our emotions to express themselves in the way they couldn’t when we were that child, is like having a parent who did that for us as we were developing. We need it – we needed it then, we need it now, and the beautiful thing about this work is that we can give it to ourselves now and take steps toward healing our past. We can re-parent ourselves.
This work needs to be done. We can’t just build a bridge and get over it – the only way over it is through it. It might be the most difficult work you’ll ever do, but it will most likely be the most rewarding – not just for yourself but for every relationship you’re in.
When we learn to re-parent ourselves we build the kind of foundation of a sense of self that psychologically wholehearted children learned. That foundation offers us a sense of belonging in the world, no matter what the outcomes of our work or relationships are. That foundation offers us something broad and firm to stand on when our environment is uncertain. It helps us to rely on ourselves rather than looking to others to tell us what we need to do or how we might survive psychologically. And it lets our loved ones and colleagues off the hook because it offers the kind of love and acceptance perfectionists tend to hunger from others. It helps us attach to ourselves rather than desperately attaching to others.
So, here’s a reframe for our original set of “rules”:
- For every situation there might be a multitude of problems, but some situations are not a problem at all, and some situations do not need me to get involved.
- Every problem has a multitude of reasons and I can’t possibly know all of them.
- There might be a way to address some of the reasons, but the concept of a solution is subjective and things are constantly in a state of change. There is no such thing as impermanence or certainty.
- There are many different ways to address any situation and I can be guided by my own inner wise compassionate teacher to find the course of action that will take care of what is important to me.
- Brown, B (2008) I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.”
- Brown, B (2010) The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
- Brown, B (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead
- Brown, B (2015) Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution