When Wrong Makes Right: Perfectionism & Perception.
When we think of perfectionism, we tend to think of the frantic pursuit of top dog status: the 4.0, the flawlessly executed violin solo, the panel of 10s at the end of the gymnastics routine. And I have definite experience with this kind of perfectionism. But I think it’s worth mentioning that I also notice this beast creeping into my life in other, less obvious ways. I catch it wearing new cloaks, but playing its same damn tricks.
I realized recently that my response when someone disagrees with me isn’t surprise, intrigue, or frustration; it’s blind panic. When I feel challenged, when I feel like I might be (read: am) wrong—I react desperately, fearfully. My heart pounds, my hands shake. I fly into action, desperately trying to curb the anxiety as it floods through me. Somehow, I must set this other person right, make them accept what I know, make them stop denying what I understand. I rush headfirst into attempts to “set things right,” and end up beating my head against the wall until something—the situation, maybe, or maybe my consciousness—gives.
On the surface, during these moments, I can sound pretty sure of my opinion. I must be pretty certain, given how invested I am in convincing you to follow my lead. I mean, I’m so sure that I can’t see how it’s possible for you to think differently. I’m so sure that I am committed to dismantling any argument that might suggest even the slightest challenge to my point. But beneath that impression of certainty lies a dark and magnificent mess. Beneath the surface, a set of anxiety dominoes are falling one into the next. Translated from the language of preverbal terror, they sound something like this:
If my opinion is challenged, it can’t be valid. If my perspective is invalid, it can’t exist. As a result, I won’t exist either. If you erase my Great and Powerful insight, you’ll effectively erase me.
Thus, behind the curtain of my self-righteousness, certainty, and rage — is a seriously scared little kid. She’s not the kid holding her eyes closed so that you won’t see her; she’s the one jumping in front of you, frantic for you to look her way and re-prove that she exists. She’s the same kid, incidentally, who wanders the neighborhood, knocking on doors, seeking love. The same kid who carries in her brain a constant sales pitch about her own value, like her worth is a fundraiser pizza on which you, her neighbors, must be sold.
This need to be right, like every other snake on my gorgon Perfectionism’s head—is actually the need to be wanted. It’s the desire to be heard, understood, loved, and kept—a quartet of powerful needs all far more possible than always doing, or being, “right.” Trying to be right, to have the right opinions and phrase them the right way, is impossible. And while I invest in that, my actual totally attainable needs (for example: love) remain unmet.
I have been trying to sell people on my worth for as long as I can remember. But it’s only fairly recently that this has meant attempting to drill my opinion into others. For most of my life, I was so far removed from my opinions that I could not have identified them in an ideological line-up. (One of my first essays in college came back with a simple, but telling note. Basically: “A thesis is not a question. It’s an answer. Your answer.”) At twenty, I still hadn’t learned how to comfortably identify, own, and articulate my perception. My understanding of my opinions growing up basically boiled down to this: they existed if others agreed with them. Either we were all “right” together, or we disagreed—and I was wrong.
I still remember the first time someone challenged this for me, the first time someone suggested that my perception might be independently valid. I was sitting in the hospital, my last week of residential, and the art therapist there asked me if I had ever seen the Kurosawa film Rashomon. I hadn’t. (Actually, I still haven’t; I’ve been “meaning to see it” for roughly 10 years now.) But I remember vividly what she told me about the film– how it broke ground by showing the same events from multiple perspectives. How it underscored the extent to which reality can vary based on who’s telling it.
That notion opened something inside me, and I’ve held tight to it in the years that followed. I’ve tried to believe that multiple perspectives can co-exist. That my opinions can co-exist with my classmates’, siblings’, mother’s, father’s. That when those perspectives don’t match—and even when they directly challenge each other—it doesn’t automatically negate my view. I (and my perception) remain. We remain as strong, as worthwhile, and as important as the most valid of others.
I’ve tried to hold tight to this, but progress remains slow. I’m still untangling the sixteen or twenty years prior to this possibility. I’m still learning to manage the terror that speeds through me in that moment when I’m challenged. I’m still worried that the knowledge of myself and my reality, both so recently gained, will somehow slip out of my hands—or even out of existence—if they’re not confirmed by somebody else.
When I respond to this fear with a desperate attempt to prove I’m right–because someone else’s perspective is triggering some intense anger, sadness, or fear—I don’t make any progress toward understanding my feelings. I don’t make any progress toward understanding myself or the other person. But if I can listen to them, notice them, stay accountable with myself for what they bring up in me and then return again to our intersection, mindful of the fact that we’re neighbors, something better happens. Probably I still don’t agree with them. Probably, they still don’t agree with me. But I at least recognize that they’re not, as I sometimes think, the great-and-powerful cartoonist who can erase me from the page. They’re simply a fellow beautiful, messy person attempting to live their right life. They can matter to me, bring good to my life, be worth loving — even when we epically disagree. And ultimately, there’s a second gift in that, beyond their presence: There’s the knowledge that I too matter beyond my stances and positions, that no one signs up to be in my life in alliance to a cause. They sign up because they want a connection with me. With this confusion and struggle and brambly success.
My politics and perspectives are important to me. They’re as important as the roles I take up and the projects I design. (After all, they often intersect with both.) So, I don’t shy away from them, here, to kick them to the curb. I’m not trying to distance myself from my stance on things, the way I was distanced prior to Rashomon. I’m simply trying to maintain balance, to keep the pendulum from swinging so far in the opposite direction that I replace rigid obliviousness of my perception with rigid alliance to it. Because ultimately, the two have a lot in common.
When I react to “challenges” with this level of desperation, I’m still reacting on the basis of that old system of thinking. I’m still presuming that someone else’s perspective has the power to erase mine. I’m self-defensively attempting to erase you to keep myself safe.
But the truth is, we can coexist. I can see the profiles, and you can see the vase. Because ultimately, the two are intertwined.
Ultimately, we’re both holding the same experience, trying to make meaning, to have art. And I wouldn’t want to do that alone.