There seems to be no bottom to the “dig” from a research, experimental, reflective and experiential perspective, to the quest for a grasp of the human search/drive/compulsion/inspiration/prayer for perfection.
Various definitions of perfectionism abound, among them Marion Woodman’s “Addiction to Perfection,” as the western culture emits tidal waves of evidence lauding those who strive for perfection. Everyone one, and every organization, especially those in the corporate world, is struggling for perfection, and the cultural expectation, whether articulated or not, is that normalcy demands compliance.
The trouble with that high bar, however, is that it becomes, not the brass ring, or the holy grail it was intended to be, by those whose ‘charisma’ wooed millions over the centuries into believing that perfection with the highest achievement of the human being. It seems too that men are especially vulnerable to the seductive image and the attendant connotations of social praise, fiscal rewards, trophies, promotions, enhanced portfolios. We are also, it seems, susceptible to the fear/risk/shame/turbulence/failure of not attaining some form of perfection. Too often, we seem to exist in a world boundaried and thereby governed by polar opposites…If we, or the people for whom we are responsible fail in the performance of our/their/shared duties, then the sky will fall somehow, somewhere, and with consequences too scary to contemplate.
In fact, it may well be our blocking our own capacity, willingness, openness and perception of the kind of options that come with any and all situations, regardless of their gravity that is at the heart of our dilemma. Authority, the kind that has been implanted into our conscious and unconscious mind, carries multiple, extraordinary, almost incomprehensible power, a kind of power over which we often lose even the possibility of bringing it under our strength. Whether it originated in a highly neurotic parent, whose own failure to achieve what s/he considered perfection, or a peer, or a teacher whose abuse of power scarred our psyche, a law enforcement officer whose interventions were less than salutary, the source is less significant that the lasting imprint on our psyche. It may also have been a clergy whose conviction about the mind and the rules of God were so severe that s/he literally and metaphorically convinced us that we were “hell-bound” and required immediate, total and utter salvation, and if we were a little uncertain about the absolute certainty of his or her conviction, as any reasonable, mature, sentient, intelligent and imaginative adolescent or young adult, or even more likely an older adult, except those of us who have ‘hit bottom’ in the words of the AA movement, and we didn’t fully by into the sales pitch, we are still likely to have been marked, perhaps unconsciously, as less than O.K., in the eyes of God, and by inference in the eyes of the church, the clergy, and who knows how many and which others.
Les than worthy, unacceptable, alienated, separated, abandoned….all words and phrases that bruise, at minimum, and deeply wound, at their most serious. They will always leave us confused, anxious, highly motivated in an almost surreal manner, and certainly determined never to permit others (and quite likely ourselves) to be able to peer behind the curtain of professionalism, performance in our specific skill set, our chosen mask of humour and being the life of the party, our shyness and reserve, our deep and profound anger that, like a volcanic eruption, jumps out at a dining room or kitchen table, among those we ostensibly care for and even love. Our privacy, for fear of exposure as a less than OK person, in the eyes of those who matter to us, also contributes to our own capacity to function without having to be burdened with our own “shadow”, that bag of wounds we all carry over our shoulder, until the weight of its cloud is so unbearable that we just have to open it, dig out those moments/periods/months or even years when we were drowning in waters too turbulent for us to confront.
We all know about, care about, take precautions against, and protections from a pandemic, from a ‘natural disaster like a flood, runaway fires, droughts, famines, criminals, and even competitive rivals whose motives and methods cause us to purchase/invent/design protections. It is, however, the inner threats, those we cannot either see, or hear, or smell, or even imagine until long after they have left their mark, that drive our impulses toward integrating our disparate personalities, and thereby ourselves into the circle in which we find ourselves.
At this moment, we face a juncture in the road. We have been relatively successful in not having opened that bag of hurts, and who knows how deeply impacting our baby steps to open it might be. Also, having lived for a few decades, likely 4 or 5 at least, we have already established relationships based on our “armoured” self, our public face, our highly sophisticated, subtle and almost imperceptible mask. Those who know us best have come to ‘trust’ what they legitimately perceive us to be, our idiosyncracies, our preferences, our sense of humour, our commitments and responsibilities, and our patterns. Even to contemplate confronting our deepest pain, our fear and our anxieties seems like a step too far if for no other reason that to do so will, we believe, upset the applecart of our world. And now we have entered into another bucket of anxiety, the potential of alienating our family, our children, our spouse, and potentially our employer and thereby our source of income.
With only a few more decades to live, why take such a radical step as to dive into our unconscious, in a psychological archeological dig for those heretofore buried demons, emotional wounds, regardless of how deep they may appear to others? And for those who are highly conscious of what the conventional culture considers “normal” and by inference, abnormal or serious, we are even more inhibited in our confusion about whether to plunge into our own darkness. What if, for example, our wounds are considered superficial, when compared to the stories like that written in Educated, by Tara Westover, or the horror stories of residential schools and the impact they had, and continue to have on indigenous children, robbed of their parents, their heritage, the indianness?
Social and statistical reporting, about, for example the number of female victims of domestic violence perpetrated by men, renders the violent, intemperate, inexcusable, unjustified and unchallenged parenting of some mothers mere “tough love” in many quarters. Stories about such wounding, therefore, slide into the closet of the culture, perhaps forever. Similarly, stories of fathers perpetrating incest on their daughters, if disclosed, could and would likely result in criminal convictions, prison sentences and the obvious family destruction. Barnacled to the pain of many is the shame of disclosure, the fear of losing what one has, even if the current situation is unbearable. So now, some are suffering from the complication of the original wound and the potential avalanche of disgrace and shame if they/we step forward to tell the world our stories.
There is a phrase uttered on every television channel, and echoed on social media, whenever a woman declares that she has been sexually abused, that comes from a chorus of women who know the depths of her courage, conviction and maturity just come forward, knowing the potential backlash that will ensue. There simply is no such chorus from men, if a male comes forward to declare his victimhood of real abuse. Men are, however, coming out to support the first male in the NHL to declare his gayness, a pathway paved in part by the former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy was not derailed by his openness.
It is the “suck-it-up” culture, however, that still dominates much of masculine mythology and psychology. While none of us is willing to acknowledge bereavement as a psychiatric condition needing treatment, given that death comes to all of us, including all of our families, as a matter of course. Rendering grief a psychiatric illness is not merely redundant; it is unethical, immoral, and inexcuseable, except perhaps in cases of untimely tragedy like the condo collapse recently in Florida, or the inexcusable rampant mass-killings that ravage the United States currently.
Parenting young boys, in a manner steeped in cultural tradition, with epithets such as “don’t cry” and “get-back-up-and-show-us-you-are-a-strong-man” have implications in so many fields: professional athletics, for example, where many men play with serious injuries and are lauded for their heroism, or in medicine, for example, where students and graduate doctors are expected to be on call 24-7 for a week, while expected to make correct diagnoses and even more perfect treatment plans. Endurance, except when unexpected conditions arise, is considered a masculine trait, positive, endearing, uplifting and highly admired. So too is a kind of stoicism, redolent of emotional repression and suppression, both of which are traditional signatures of masculinity.
And the implications, for the repressed and suppressed men, many of whom would likely deny their repression and suppression, and their part in that process, as well as for the families of those men, are legion. Millions of men, today, are walking around in their offices, on the factory floors, driving their rigs, captaining their planes and ships, riding in their squad cars, ambulances, and even hearses, in an emotional state that could legitimately be dubbed “drugged” without the implication of either prescribed or illicit drug ingestion. And the pain, naturally, undiagnosed, undetected, buried, and then medicated by any one or more of a variety of pain-killers, both legitimate and legal and illegitimate and illegal depending on the circumstances, leaps out in headlines of mass shootings, overdoses, domestic violence, workplace absenteeism, neighbourhood conflict, highway crashes that cannot be categorized as accidents, suicides, excessive gambling, bankruptcies, missing persons, abandoned children and women…..
And, as is our habit, we permit the news media to glibly report these “tragedies” as shootings, accidents, or some form of legal, superficial and therefore easily glossed-over words that do not, and cannot do justice to the harm we are, and will continue to inflict on our own species, without even considering the massive existential threats of pandemics and global warming and climate change.
If in our private lives, we men are willing and complicit in our subtle and sophisticated cover-up of our own deep, permanent and threatening psychic wounds, for the sake of maintaining a proper, professional, successful and even endearing performance reputation, then how could we expect a global population whose psychic culture is dominated by masculine archetypes, to be worried, concerned, hyper-vigilant and committed to prevention of our environmental sources of life?
It is not only men who will have to strip our masks from our individual and our collective faces; our women, too, will have to acknowledge that they have and continue to depend on our “secrets” remaining buried, so that the public face of their/our families remains intact, and we can and will continue to operate on a superficial consciousness that is barricaded from our collective and individual unconsciousness. And the stripping of our individual and our cultural masks will take some monumental and courageous steps being first contemplated, and then enacted, if families are to come to a fuller truth and the authentic complexity of their individual members, and the much richer and more complex social fabric that currently on display in our public forums.
Women already have the confidence and the relative security of sister-circles, in which to begin to shed their “psychic make-up” while men, on the other hand, are still searching for safe places, and safe friends, not to mount more “perfectionistic achievement campaigns” but rather to begin the long and arduous and both frustrating and enlivening work of digging into our own biographies for the gold gems, currently covered in the algae of denial and avoidance, but underneath, just waiting to be burnished and polished, is the gold of new insight, new consciousness, often new forgiveness of both self and injurer, and the lightness and freedom that can only come from such an unburdening.
And we men need our women to hold our hand, not in pity, or in patronizing, or in condescension, or certainly not in superiority…but in love, patience, tolerance and hope….that we can all get through this personal, cultural, global darkness together….and our kids will get to know who we really are!
* Song by Kevin Gates
Songwriters: Gilyard Kevin, Sibley Alanza Carde,Braxton Dae'wan