Perfectionism (the subject of last week’s post) is one way in which people whose formative years were stormy and unpredictable attempt to control the world. In order to avoid the wrath of my parents, I was very careful not to make any mistakes. In order to avoid the wrath of my partner/boss/friends, I am very careful not to make any mistakes. It’s an exhausting and impossible quest.
Unaware that the parents are worried about money or any number of other things, as well as struggling to prevent their own relationship from falling apart, the child knows only that she has to tread carefully. Sometimes, everything is fine and we can have fun together. Then, suddenly, without warning, something is triggered in one of the parents and war breaks out. The child’s life becomes focused on finding ways to keep the peace and she grows up believing her own behaviour is the key to it – although the rules and boundaries are always rather fluid and she has to work hard to stay one step ahead.
As that child grows up, she retains the distorted sense of responsibility for the world around her. It’s a sad paradox that a person who is excessively controlled in childhood often develops an inflated idea of her own power, which undermines her from both directions.
On the negative side, she carries around a huge burden of guilt for events that either were not her fault or that really don’t matter. The tendency to exaggerate one’s own shortcomings and their consequences we’ll talk about next week but I encourage you to reflect this week on how many times you curse yourself for things that are, in reality, out of your control. For instance, I was giving a friend a lift to an appointment the other day and we got stuck in traffic – not foreseeable rush-hour traffic but a jam caused by an accident on the motorway. It was just bad luck and yet I felt completely responsible and kept apologising to my friend for the fact he was going to be late.
On what may sound like the positive side, she may set herself up for failure by letting her unrealistic view of her own capabilities, her magical thinking, lead her to throw herself into a situation unprepared. There’s a good example of this, along with a clear analysis of it, on this blog about public speaking.
How often do you say, “I can do that!”, without thinking it through to make sure you really can? When the task goes wrong, do you attack yourself fiercely? If this is a pattern for you, my guess is it’s for a reason similar to the one I’ve outlined. These things are turning out badly not because you’re not a strong, capable person but purely because you’re not giving yourself a fair chance. Next time you catch yourself about to embark on one of these doomed missions, stop and think about it, prepare thoroughly – and you’ll find you get a much better result.