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  • Reverend James Squire

Covid to the Soul

We are still coping with the Pandemic. There is a new variant that has complicated our lives along with the politicization of the vaccination process. The Conservative Republican Political Caucus cheered this past weekend when it was announced that President Biden didn’t reach his vaccination goal. There is another silent killer on the loose. It is at the heart of many mental health issues. It is the pursuit of being perfect. Most people quickly dismiss it as a relatively benign process. It just could have been the underlying emotion in the Big Lie which led to the insurrection. People don’t realize its far reaching effects.

It is the reason that the best attended class at Harvard was a course on Positive Psychology that had 900 students. That course was also highly attended at Yale. Students at high level schools think that they have to be perfect to get into them. Then they discovered that they were depressed and were looking for ways to deal with the fallout from perfectionism.

I called the psychological services at Harvard and asked why so many of their freshmen were depressed. There was little time between the question and the answer. They don’t know how to fail. “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” The irony is that high level schools proclaim that they are looking for the well-rounded student. In the end, I have discovered it is about grades and test scores that the student has received that is the bigger player.

The course at Harvard was taught by Tal Ben Shahar, an Israeli Squash Champion and a confessed recovering perfectionist. He wrote a book on the subject to demonstrate the web that it could form in our psyche and soul to rob us of happiness. Trump has been described as the most flawed individual to ever hold office. We quickly hear the term, narcissist, which he is, but he is also a study in perfectionism. Perfectionism does not mean that you are striving for perfection in all things in your life. Certainly, that is not true for Trump who repeatedly failed in business, but he chose one thing to focus on with perfectionism. He is a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

The central issue in the quest for perfection is the underlying fear of failure. In Trump’s case it was the fear of not being reelected. He has created a world that is an alternative universe in order to avoid the reality that he lost. Let’s take a dive into the quest for the perfect from both philosophy and psychology to see the origins of this drive. I taught a mini course in philosophy and psychology to my ethics classes so that they could understand how perfection is a seductive but self-defeating strategy that can lead to unethical behavior.

What Shahar and Positive Psychology has identified is the opposite of perfectionisn which is optimalism. Opitmalism, a term used in positive psychology, sees the world the way it is in a realistic fashion. Shahar makes a point that the difference between the perfectionist and optimalist can be found in Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens, in which Plato points to the sky and Aristotle points to the ground. Plato is the perfectionist pointing to the Gods and perfection. Aristotle points to this world, to the natural, to the real which Is the optimalist way of going through life.

I did an exercise with my ethics students to address the issue of perfection. It is not biological in nature. It is developmental. Most of the formation of that point of view is shaped in the ego ideal. You can do this exercise as well. I had them draw a circle and write it in the way that they want to be seen by others. They wrote in such things as pretty, handsome, smart, athletic, musical, intelligent, etc. The ego ideal is formed when we are much younger when we can’t realistically draw these conclusions. We accept these characteristics as truth because when you are young and vulnerable, you don’t challenge these assumptions. It is just the way that you should be. Attributes get ruled in and ruled out.

But what happens when we fail to meet these ideals? The ego ideal is like a fortress with many entrances. If you see yourself as brilliant and get a F on a test, you shut all the doors in your emotional fortress. You do this with what psychologists have aptly called defense mechanisms such as denial that the bad test happened in the first place, rationalization that it wasn’t a good test, or projection that the teacher was inept to name a few. You can then remain safe inside with your perception of your own idealism or perfection. Plato reigns. Aristotle is cast aside. If you read these last two paragraphs, apply what has happened with the Big Lie and the Insurrection.

Trump is a case in the extreme, but it can help us see how this dynamic can play in our lives and can lead to our own unethical behavior. Your ego ideal is not going to change. It is like your height. It gets fixed, but you can change the entrances to your fortress so that you can let failure to achieve these unrealistic ideals in, choose a grounded reality, and go more with the natural flow. If you are five feet tall and your ego ideal says that you should be a professional basketball player, you will exist in a steady state of feeling you are a failure. It is not realistic. For Shahar it was that he must be a champion or else.

But as President Biden would say, “Here’s the deal!” We are both a perfectionist and optimalist.

Perfectionists exist because they meet with a level of success. They are not challenged. Shahar won many tournaments but woke up the next day and was as unhappy as ever until he discovered a balance is needed.

Here are some guidelines to achieve that balance of Aristotle by a summary by Shahar. “The perfectionist views life’s journey as a straight line. The optimalist sees it as as an irregular spiral. The perfectionist is afraid of failure. The optimalist uses failure as feedback. The perfectionist is rigid, critical and defensive. The optimalist is adaptable. The perfectionist focuses on the destination setting goals that are overly ambitious and unobtainable. The optimalist focuses on the journey and the destination. The perfectionist has an all or nothing mindset. The optimalist embraces a more nuanced, complex mindset.”

There is a way that you can quickly tell when a person embraces perfectionism to the exclusion of optimalism combined with narcissism which often go together. They never take responsibility or apologize!

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