By Bernie Dunning, MA
There are individuals who feel frustrated about their life because despite believing they are always doing the right thing, they keep on failing. They can’t maintain close relationships and/or they fail at their parenting efforts.
Tragically they may tend to pride themselves for being righteous. They are nice people, who work hard, and are usually successful in business terms. There homes are well kept, and they would feel terrible if other people saw their child misbehaving or their house untidy. If this were exposed they would feel so bad they would become extremely self-critical, and come down hard on their child who misbehaved or a spouse who left a mess.
Why? They tend to see everything around them as a reflection of how people see them. Unfortunately the more they work at controlling events and people around them, the more they feel events and people seem out of control! I am sure most of us can identify with this dynamic in our own life to some degree; however I am talking about an extreme: people who Freud would diagnose as operating primarily from their Superego. These are folks about which others would say: “God save us from people who are always right.”
These perfectionists focus on “Rules and Standards.” It is difficult to argue with them as they are mostly right!
These folk are quite rigid, and for the most part do not see “Gray” in human interactions. Ironically they often attract those who love “a good time,” but they end up judging their choice of a mate as “one who is not responsible.” This becomes another disappointment in his or her life, leading to yet even more rigidity.
They have a difficult time softening this outlook on life for obvious reasons. Why should they? They are always holding the moral high ground. They see change as compromising their standards, and thus not being true to themselves. They see behaviours as good or bad, and have difficulty opening to the possibility of having good and bad in the same behaviours.
For instance they would fail to appreciate that their son came home on time but instead focus on why he went to a place he is not allowed. That son would be questioned: Why did you do this? His struggle to totally obey his parent’s orders would be irrelevant. The focus would instead be on the disobedience.
The opportunity to learn about their son, and what difficulties he is having with his world, are thus lost. So, too, would the opportunity to recognize and affirm his effort of coming home. You can see that any affirmation of his effort is gone.
It is no wonder that this type of personality has difficulty sustaining emotional contact with other people! When a person experiences being alone in their world it is little comfort to them to hold the attitude that they are right about most (if not all) issues.
They confess in therapy that they give their spouse everything (new car, jewelry, and a nice house); yet the spouse still complains and is unhappy. The perfectionist complains that they give their children everything –yet the children are unhappy and always asking for more. They moan: “my children are never happy.”
The problem is they have a difficult time connecting on an emotional level. Being present to what is going on with a person’s internal life of feelings and emotions is extremely hard. I think this is a difficult area because there is no control about what might emerge nor how “these feelings coming at me” can be dealt with.
Here are a few tips on how to get out of this conundrum.
First: They need to understand and accept that they are lovable for who they are as a person, not for what they do. I think this is very difficult for the personality we are talking about. Claiming our own lovability is a process; it takes some a life-time to finally have the sense they are lovable for who they are as a person. This is important in order to stop feeling they have to do something to fix someone or something. Consequently this allows others to take responsibility for their own life. Which brings us to the next point.
Second: They need to begin to let go of taking responsibility for those around them, and to make sure others are always on the straight and narrow. They need to realize they cannot make their children happy, and understand that people choose to be happy. Learning how to play is very helpful in order to overcome the sense that they are being “irresponsible” when taking care of themselves. As they overcome this fear of being irresponsible they will eventually be able to enjoy the experience of play.
In other words, they need to better balance the inner dynamic of responsibility and playfulness. When these two qualities are out of balance we become unhappy people.
I notice that people who are stuck on one of these qualities tends to marry a person who has the other quality; they eventually end up hating each other because the responsible person becomes “super” responsible (and see their partner as being super irresponsible) while the playful person sees the other as being too controlling –and no fun! Therefore each person becomes more ‘married’ to their preferred way of functioning.
These two dynamics are key to a satisfying life: accepting oneself as a lovable person, and thus trusting that others will love us for who we are; and working at keeping a balance in our life between being responsible and playfulness. These are vital to not falling into the trap of being the Law and Order person, the fear that my family and others will be going to ‘hell in a handbasket.’ The other danger of not having this balance is eventually giving up on people, thus becoming a very lonely person.
Bernard Dunning holds an MA in Family Systems Counselling, and is a volunteer Board member with our agency.