Perfectionism is the root of most human evil
Next in the series looking at “The Gloria Films” where I attempt to continue to convince you of the power of acceptance.
The title - no, I didn’t say that, but I get where Albert Ellis was coming from. Since identifying perfectionism was a problem for me, it’s been like turning on a blinding spotlight when I once only had a flickering candle stub. Perfectionism seeps into nearly all parts of my life and does far more to hold me back and stress me out than to help me achieve perfection.
But before we get into that, who is Albert Ellis anyway? Well he was the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), which evolved to form one part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Last week in class, we watched Ellis deliver a therapy session with Gloria. If you didn’t catch that post, check out my thoughts on Carl Rogers’ session. In short, in 1965, three up-and-coming psychologists presented their new forms of therapy on by conducting a real filmed therapy session with a woman called Gloria. One of them was Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred therapy and probably the most influential person in the field since Freud. He was always going to be a tough act to follow, but I tried to stay open to what Albert Ellis and his REBT could offer.
I didn’t stay open for long. Ellis rubbed me up the wrong way pretty much immediately. He came across as somewhat rude (he told Gloria she had a big mouth!), egotistical and pushy. Yes, he drew out some insights from Gloria and helped her to spot when she was thinking irrationally, but it was more the manner in which he did it.
Our tutor asked us to write down three things Ellis did well and three things he didn’t. I could have gone on but we’d have been there all night.
Find the root…
CBT has its place and has certainly helped many. Our thoughts are often irrational, especially when we’re anxious, and having some tools to stop that thinking, to step off that path of descent, is invaluable. But that’s just what CBT is: a tool. It’s a plaster on an infected wound. It might soak up some of the gunk and offer some protection, but it won’t fix the problem.
Gloria was having problems with dating and its impact on her children following a divorce. It’s the issue of dating she specifically brings to Ellis, and for 20 minutes or so Ellis essentially berates her for coming at it all wrong.
CBT is one of the few therapy modalities that gives you proper homework, and Ellis sets Gloria the task of asking a man out, fear of rejection be damned. It’s a different time - I don’t think asking your GP out is really going to go down well - but it’s clear what Ellis is doing: he’s trying to show Gloria that asking a man out isn’t so bad, and any negative consequences will be uncomfortable and maybe upsetting but nothing more.
We discussed in class though that we spent the entire time waiting for Ellis to ask Gloria why she has these irrational thoughts about dating. What’s the cause? Where does the root go? Ellis is up there pruning dead branches, refusing to stick his hands in the dirt and the worms to get to the root of the disease.
I’m a bit harsh on him. Like I said, CBT can and does work. Gloria hasn’t come to Ellis severely depressed or grappling with psychosis. She’s a good candidate for CBT, being in a good enough mental state to wield its tools, to slap on that Peppa Pig plaster.
I wish I’d had more than a plaster though when I’d gone for therapy in uni. I was depressed, anxious and paranoid. I was spending most of my time either in bed, crying or drunk. I liked the idea of challenging my irrational thoughts, but you need the will to do so - I didn’t have that will. What depressed person does?
…and leave it be
It’s why I’m not sure I agree with Ellis when he says that perfectionism is the root of most human evil. He’s finally plunged his hands into the dirt and triumphantly pulled out a tiny, surface-level root. I think perfectionism is more often a symptom, not a cause.
Why do we chase perfection? For status, for love, for peace. We don’t chase perfection for perfection’s sake.
It reminds me of the existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s ‘four givens’. In Yalom’s eyes, all our worries and problems and motivations boil down to four givens of life, four ultimate concerns we cannot avoid:
Our inherent isolation
This is an extremely simplified distillation of Yalom’s theory, so if you haven’t read Yalom’s ‘Love’s Executioner’, read it. You don’t need to be a therapist or a trainee - it’s simply essential reading.
Let’s apply them to perfectionism. What is the pursuit of perfection if not an attempt to:
Avoid death by ensuring you live on through your perfect work, your perfect contributions to the world, your perfect children, or even your perfect health;
Avoid life’s meaninglessness by attempting to brute force meaning through creativity and achievement;
Avoid the fact we can never truly connect to anyone, and that the only guaranteed person in our lives is ourselves, by attempting to find ‘the one’;
Avoid the chaos of free will by attempting to control everything to a minute detail.
‘Control’ is the key word there, I think. Perfectionism is a theory of control.
But we cannot control the world. We have a very small influence. We cannot wrap our arms about the trunk of the tree of life - it’s far too wide - so we must be content with only a piece - a leaf, a twig, a bud.
For me, it comes back then to acceptance. That’s what CBT doesn’t do - accept. It says you’re flawed, irrational, there’s a wire loose we’ve got to put back in place. And whilst all of that is true, and managing it is within our capabilities, we cannot force change.
I might have noticed how perfectionism attempts to control all parts of my life, but my attempts to manage it have only worked up to a point. I might successfully push through my worry that my writing is terrible and finish working on a paragraph, but it doesn’t mean those perfectionist worries won’t be back tomorrow. It’s how I control the world, it’s how I control my place in it. The most important part for me that has allowed me to begin to unpick this theory of control1 is identifying what my perfectionism is trying to keep me safe from and coming to terms with it.
We will always fear death and meaninglessness and isolation and freedom, no matter what we do. When we rage against this fear, however, that’s when the problems arise. That’s when Ellis’ evil takes root.
I’ve kept you long enough. I’ll leave you with Carl Rogers, who says it far better than I ever could:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience - that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”
Watch the video
Next week I want to explore that theory of control a little more, but this time in terms of writing. Understanding the human psyche is pretty much imperative to being a fiction writer or poet or a screenwriter. So, stay tuned!