Perfectionism is the unparalleled defense for emotionally abandoned children. The existential unattainability of perfection saves the child from giving up, unless or until, scant success forces him to retreat into the depression of a dissociative disorder, or launches him hyperactively into an incipient conduct disorder. Perfectionism also provides a sense of meaning and direction for the powerless and unsupported child. In the guise of self- control, striving to be perfect offers a simulacrum of a sense of control. Self-control is also safer to pursue because abandoning parents typically reserve their severest punishment for children who are vocal about their negligence. (Pete Walker)
I have fought perfectionism for a long time. Occasionally, however, I find that it provides an easy escape from excessive supervision and control. People who are compulsive about their need for absolute control cannot attack unless or until I screw up in some manner that provides them with the window of opportunity they so desperately need. And every time I screw up, they strike laser-like, in a manner that betrays their obsession and their impatience at having to wait so long to strike.
Once, following a piano recital, at twelve, during which the coat sleeve I wore struck and sounded a note not on the manuscript, I was beaten for making such a “mistake”.
Once, following a dramatic mis-step, in which, at eleven, I stubbed my toe in an over-anxious trip up the stairs on my way to compete for a trophy in a music festival and fell flat on my face, (evoking the tension-releasing comment from the emcee, “This candidate is certainly eager!”) an embarrassed, perfectionistic parent refused to speak for the whole of a four-hour train trip home.
Once, following disclosure that I had withheld, until after the Christmas holiday, a mediocre grade on a grade nine history exam, the shiny Spalding Christmas 9-iron I had just received was violently broken over the knee of the “deceived” parent and pitched into the basement.
Once, following an undeserved ‘strapping’ in grade four, and after discovering news had been withheld, I was marched into the kitchen and told to bend over the kitchen sink in order for the “mouth-washing’ with Lifebuoy soap to begin.
Notice the parade of “once’s”….yet they are all of a piece out of which a gestalt of anxiety and fear, abandonment and exasperation, and a retreat into something that can only be described as “perfectionism” emerged. Whenever I enter a room filled with people. my radar switches to overdrive, my sensibilities are heightened and my anxiety rises. Oh, most times, given the decades of practice, I am able to mask the anxiety (or so I tell myself, deceptively) unfortunately for others, by that dreaded and noxious “bravado” of inquiry, excessive energy, enthusiasm and a gestalt of compensation for my own anxiety. Not knowing if and when I am “safe” depending on the situation, the potential for attack, the opportunity for insult and my instant and exaggerated response (hardly in keeping or commensurate with the often pin-prick of insensitivity), I will contort my person into a shape barely reminiscent of a “normal” male body and psyche, whatever they are.
My perfectionism holds a powerful magnifying lens, akin to a high-powered microscope or telescope, from the top of a very high mast, on the look-out for abuses of authority, whether or not they might be directed toward me, or another. While there is a perspective on public affairs that seeks to expose abuses in this “vision,” there is also a rather dangerous and self-sabotaging implication. I come off like a ‘dangerous’ and “hard-assed” volcano, ready and willing to erupt if and when I detect the abuse of a position, or the authority of those in power.
This attitude has jumped to the fore when I heard another pedagogue wrongly accuse a co-ed of cheating on a math test, relinquishing the potential for a further relationship with the teacher, and risking the charge of being “too liberal” both of which followed. It has jumped out almost unconsciously, when I heard a principal exaggerate the potential political damage that might result from the opposition and criticism of another colleague, in defense of the colleague.
It has surfaced when faced with any reductionistic engagement, more like tokenism, when I see someone in a “leadership” position, patronizing a newcomer, simply because he can.
It has also jumped to the “breach” (obviously an authentic creation of my imagination) when I heard my mother tell me, only days following the death of my father, “He was no good!” after she had spent sixty-two years in their marriage denigrating him and his profound integrity, compassion and authenticity.
My perfectionism also lept out when I heard statements of obvious abuse directed at my person, by those who had spent decades knowing me, yet found themselves compelled to impose intellectual, research conclusions from seminars about abstractions on the relationship. In fact, so appalled by such attacks was I, and continue to be, that I literally “quit and stayed” because I did not know what else to do. So active and persistent is my perfectionism that it has literally defined not only the way I approach my work, but also the expectations I have of others.
And clearly, those expectations are hardly “appropriate” to beneficial to a larger purpose of growing and developing relationships. Learning that the relationship is necessary, and can only be grown in a garden of support, nurture, fertilizer and sunlight (love, music, beauty, poetry, and joy) has begun to make it possible for me to even begin to trust enough to risk fully entering relationship. Thanks to a loving spouse, and a loving daughter for their unconditional love and support!
Let’s take a look at emotionally abandoned children, those especially vulnerable to perfectionism apparently.
It is not only a physically absent parent who abandons a child. In fact, a parent absorbed in his or her own stuff, without either time or interest in the finer details of a child’s life can be, and too often is, culpable of abandoning the child emotionally.
When “performance” trumps family relationships, through award-winning flower gardens, through the accomplishments of the children, as jewels in the crown of the parent, through a kind of theology that dictates and obsesses over a dogmatic absolutism, a literal reading of scripture, and a conviction that the starting point of all human lives is as “sinner” having to “work” one’s way to heaven, God easily becomes the scapegoat/cover/justification for such attitudes. And no God worthy of the name would support or even countenance such an approach either to faith or parenting. And no child, no matter how old, how mature, how well dressed, or how well presented to the world, grasps the full impact of such an emotional tyranny.
Any child in such a culture would feel powerless, especially given the emasculation of one parent by the other. Self control can take the form of tidy dressing, shiny shoes, meticulous adherence to instructions at dance and piano lessons, strict imitation of all expected and required processes in stoking the furnace and the jacket heater, (used to heat water for baths and laundry), meticulous patterns while cutting the lawn, detailed patterns of “picking” raspberries, spading the garden, shovelling the walk, and even building a wooden enclosed mobile on top of a wagon.
The adult-designed and implemented culture, including the unwritten rules and expectations, most of which would have been denied if parents had been challenged, as would the physical and emotional abuse, and the self-imposed paint-by-number existence, in order to achieve some measure of “order” and control, where such things were within one’s orbit, as it were, combined to shake a toxic equation.
And the imprint of the equation on all of the lives whose paths have crossed mine, without their even having the intimate consciousness of the background, has generated both self-doubt and considerable personal angst. It is as if the pattern of emotional abandonment in the early years became a repeating pattern for decades after. There is no disguising or denying the dramatic imprinting of early years on one’s psyche.
And the harder one tries to evacuate the original family “cell” the more determined are the muscles of its grip, because such a willful and deliberate escape takes so much conscious work, changing habits, changing beliefs and changing expectations, that one loses sight of the Shadow, the unconscious into which these patterns have also been embedded.
Hence, after such a pre-adult life, one does not conceive of a difference between one’s performance and one’s ego or person or identity.* And to separate one’s ego from one’s persona, (mask) is one’s life work, and it cannot be accomplished through memory work, through therapy, through journalling, through faith explorations by themselves, nor in some deterministic combination. The separation or individuation, has to come at its own pace and time, needing a soil and climate conducive to such evolution.
From all of those whose lives have been negatively impacted by this scribe’s stunted psychic development, I seek their forgiveness, and offer my deep apologies. Some were students, others colleagues; some were my own children and sibling; others include a former spouse, and a gallery of supervisors who, while they tried to tolerate my turbulence, also took wide berths around my tempestuousness.
My father used to utter an aphorism that has lodged in my memory in a permanent place: “Too soon old, too late schmart!”
Still practicing a lighter and less insidious form of perfectionism ( I hope), I am seeking a path covered with pine needles, under the orchestration of winds blowing through their bows, pausing at all of the snowy owls, the cardinals, the white-tailed deer and the white swans along the way. The inspiration to be who and what each creature is fills me with hope and energy to continue the pilgrimage so long as these joints continue to move without pain or interruption.
*Of course, if my identity is encapsulated in my performance, it follows as the night the day that the identity of the “other” is also accessible from their own performance. And the ripples of such a restricted view of both self and the other have too often reduced and restricted the perception of another’s identity, as well as my own.