Excerpt from, “Dare to be Ordinary: How to Recover from Self-doubt and Redirect your Life if you Dare”
by Julie Gustafson
Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.
(The best is the enemy of the good)
Early in my recovery from perfectionism, before I had any training in psychology, I had difficulty letting go of it. It wasn’t clear how efforts at being more ordinary, average, or “phoning it in” as one friend called it, would help me with moving forward, or having success in my life. My fear was that I would turn into a box-of-chocolate-eating-couch-potato who watched soap operas in the middle of a workday and wasted all her Type A energy on a mindless task like “chilling out.” I also felt that I’d be leaving the tribe, so to speak. In our cultural norms we are overtly (and covertly) told to be rich, famous, talented and beautiful. How else was I supposed to reach that goal if I wasn’t being absolutely perfect and goal driven?
As I progressed in my psychological training, I worked on research at UCLA with persons living with deep shame from cultural stigma. I saw how comparing oneself to cultural ideals and perfectionism stifled people. It poisoned their positive belief in self and ultimately paralyzed some people from any movement in their life. As a student, I was surprised to learn of an actual psychological disorder of perfectionism called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR: a manual for diagnosing mental disorders) defines obsessive–compulsive personality disorder as:
A pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. A person must meet four or more of the following characteristics: is occupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or agenda to the point that the key part of the activity is gone; demonstrates perfectionism that hampers completing tasks; is extremely dedicated to work and efficiency to the elimination of spare time activities; is meticulous, scrupulous, and rigid about etiquettes of morality, ethics, or values; is not capable of disposing worn out or insignificant things even when they have no sentimental meaning; is unwilling to pass on tasks or work with others except if they surrender to exactly their way of doing things; takes on a stingy spending style towards self and others; and shows stiffness and stubbornness.
What surprised me was not that this disorder existed, but that the description looked very much like the work driven people I knew in Los Angeles, and not unlike what I learned from the media of how successful people lived and behaved. This seemed more like the American way than the description of a disease! I thought that a very relaxed European, on their four-week summer vacation, while lying on a beach, must have conjured up the diagnostic criteria– they had absolutely no clue about what it was to survive in Los Angeles! Turned out that I was wrong. Through my own personal journey and in my work as a therapist, I saw just how paralyzing perfectionism can be.
I’ve seen ever-so-subtle features of OCPD symptoms (in people without any disorder) stifle a person’s entire life. What I discovered is that what feels like the right thing (perfectionism— being PERFECT at something) is actually a subtle and subversive form of shame, self-doubt and ultimately self-sabotage. Ugh. Frustrating! While us perfectionists thought that we were correct in keeping ourselves from doing something until we got it exactly right (or at least until we abused ourselves with the imaginary mental whip of “do it more and do it better”), we were actually suffering and possibly suffering from a disease!
After first being horrified, I soon found so much relief in this discovery that I planned on turning it into a full-blown national campaign to save perfectionists of the world: DARE TO BE AVERAGE! There would be T-shirts! And bumper stickers! A revolutionary sentiment turned out to be possibly un-American and cultural blasphemy. During the early days of Facebook, on my News Feed, I proudly stated to the world: Daring to be average… I received a ton of backlash. “Julie, you’re not even close to average… what are you talking about!?” Nobody got it. They were so deep into it themselves that it became a threat to reality. To their credit, most of them knew that I was getting straight A’s in a graduate program, had published psychological research with only a bachelor’s degree and always seemed to be looking for the next ladder to climb. But by then, I knew that accomplishing outward achievement was different than the stifling internal feeling of perfectionism, and the dislocated feeling of having a sense of self that was based on an accomplishment, rather than and inherent sense of worth. That fueled my passion to step up this campaign. I’m going to make more T-shirts!! Plain, average white T-Shirts with plain black text simply stating: dare to be average. I told everyone about my T-shirt campaign. Other mental health professionals understood, but everyone else looked at me terrified, confused or angry. My self-help friends, from the positive-thinking-manifest-your-destiny community really shrugged their shoulders. This was the anti-thesis to their “YOU”RE THE BEST! YOU CAN DO IT” campaign. When I discussed this issue with clients who struggled with perfectionism, they became angry with me and sometimes argued, “how could you ask me to be average when I’m struggling to do more with me career? When I’m struggling soooo hard to be anything but average!?”
This is a reasonable question and perhaps my approach was off? I had to reconsider. Not reconsider my idea, but reconsider how to approach this issue. I needed to consider how complicated it can feel to try to extract oneself from perfectionism while still moving forward with one’s life and feeling good with life, accomplishing things on life’s terms. In re-evaluating why this was such a struggle for people to let go of (including referring to my own process of letting go of it), I was lead to the emotion of shame and it’s mental-behavioral counterpart: self-doubt. Shame is a pervasive, and sometimes healthy (eg., humility), emotion that fuels almost everyone. Cultural allegories about the Statesman living in the shadow of his successful, powerful father and his drive to get out from that shadow; the Olympic athletes generation after generation and the one who could not win gold. We have story after story of struggling with shame (failure) in contrast to so much success we’re told to achieve. The myth of Icarus who flies with make-shift wings is an early example. His goal was to be free, but he pushed his makeshift wings too far, too close to the sun and he perished. The message: don’t try to be too perfect just fly, but not too close to the sun. I have mixed feelings about that myth. On the one hand, yes, you can be free if you accept what is good enough about your circumstances and accept your limits, on the other hand that tale implies, don’t push to hard, go too far, or you will perish. I’m willing to explore both sides. I’m also reminded of a Japanese saying: The tallest nail gets hammered down. Though that saying belongs to a collectivistic culture, it is worthwhile to consider how that
Through the controversy of daring to be ordinary (which really does sound drab in this vibrant world), I had to acknowledge that this concept is not for everyone. And yet, this is also not a book to dampen spirits—it is a book of hope about moving forward and letting go of self-doubt (the true face of perfectionism). It is about reaching some of those sought after goals while maintaining a healthy, possibly detached, accepting attitude about the outcome. This book may not be for Olympic athletes trying to win the Gold medal, but rather, it is for Olympic Athletes obsessed with winning the gold medal. We can let go of perfectionism and still move forward. Here I am, to tell you it’s possible.