By Rachel Factor LCSW
I always find it remarkable how I can be sitting across from such a kind, capable, and talented individual yet they fail to see themselves in that way. They seem to magnify their faults and minimize their strengths. When I point out their strengths they shrug their shoulders and kind of mumble how anyone can do that too.
The question is, what stops people from feeling good about themselves? One tendency I observe on a regular basis in individuals suffering from anxiety is the trait of perfectionism. They don’t always feel like they need to be perfect in every area, but in the areas that are important to them they do. For example, Shlomo arranged a beautiful Kiddush but forgot to buy drinks. At the last minute he needed to borrow drinks from the neighbors. Instead of enjoying the Kiddush and focusing on what he did accomplish, he spent the entire time berating himself and thinking of himself as a failure. You see, for people like Shlomo, you are either great or a failure. Usually it’s the failure that wins out.
Shoshana had one of those mornings with one mishap after another. She was feeling overwhelmed and was not as patient as she would have liked to be when her child spilled the milk all over the floor. Afterwards she felt horrible. She kept thinking to herself what a terrible mother she is and no matter how hard she tries, it’s just not worth anything. She couldn’t see that usually she is patient, but sometimes (like everyone else) she’s not. This doesn’t make her a terrible mother. It makes her human.
Imagine a ladder with a top rung and a bottom rung, however, it is missing all the rungs in between. A person with perfectionistic tendencies feels that when he errs, he falls all the way down to that bottom rung. There are no middle rungs to fall back on. He is either all the way up or all the way down.
People can be perfectionistic regarding their actions, yet also regarding their state of being. “I should always feel calm.” “I should never feel down.” In reality, sometimes we feel better than other times. The harder we try to push away uncomfortable feelings, the longer they stay. The more we accept ourselves and our shortcomings, the more effective we ultimately are.
Sixteen year old Nechama got the feeling that a classmate didn’t like her. Nechama tried several times to be friendly with this classmate, but her efforts seemed in vain. Nechama started to feel that something is wrong with her and maybe she is not likable. It would be helpful for Nechama to realize that trying to be liked by everyone may be an impossible goal. The more she works towards this unattainable goal the more frustrated she will be.
The individual with perfectionistic tendencies always falls short of where they feel they should be. Therefore, they never feel they can feel good about themselves. However, if they can develop more realistic expectations, allow room for mistakes, and give themselves credit for trying it would be a whole different story. As individuals, we can often be so encouraging to others, but forget to be encouraging to ourselves.
As a therapist, I encourage my clients to work hard, but to leave perfect to G-d. As humans we will make mistakes, we will say the wrong thing, and disappoint others. The perfectionist needs to learn to tolerate human fallibility, apologize when needed, and move on. (Note – sometimes people will feel an urge to apologize at any hint of a mistake or possibility that they hurt someone’s feelings, or caused damage to someone’s property. They feel terribly anxious until they apologize. This is a form of anxiety that is addressed in therapy.)
In my office everyone knows that “Practice makes better.” (Not perfect!) When individuals stop aiming for perfection, they take the burden of stress off of themselves and usually perform better. When individuals learn to relax and accept themselves, they feel good and accomplish more. When individuals let go of the fear of making mistakes, they can go out of their comfort zones and reach higher. If they fall, that’s okay. After all, we are all works in progress.
Rachel Factor, LCSW is a CBT therapist specializing in treatment of OCD and other anxiety disorders for children, adolescents and adults. Rachel has offices in Jerusalem and Ramat Bet Shemesh. She also conducts sessions internationally via Skype or phone. She can be reached in Israel at: 052-713-4130 or at her US number: 845-510-4169. You can email her at Rachel@OCDsolutions.com and visit her website at www.OCDsolutions.com .