Think about what the words suicide prevention conjures up for you. Now, what images come up with the words living fully? In archery, we use the word “walk” on the range rather than “don’t run” because when you say the latter, what image pops into your head? That’s right – running. Therefore, we teach instructors to say walk so the brain responds with a picture of what is desired – walking. Let’s focus on the desire to live. I worry that a focus on suicide prevention leads to more suicide when unbalanced with the need to prevent perfectionism. I will provide a 3-step process to revise your thinking about perfection.
What prompted the blog?
One of my favorite shows is CBS Sunday morning. Last Sunday, they shared the story of Alexandra Valaros, an incredibly high-achieving and seemingly happy teenager from Massachusetts. I’d seen the story on the news before and had some first reactions and thoughts for this blog. This time, I couldn’t let my frustration and sadness go unused.
Anyone who makes such a painful experience public should be admired. These tragic stories, when shared, are how we learn. I am incredibly grateful they are sharing and their story which will undoubtedly help others. For me, I wished the journalists and counselors participating in the story had flown up a level and called the journal what is was; a tool of self-defeat, and kept the focus off so many details. As I’ll show you in a moment, self-defeat is one step short of death.
A lesson in wellness
Self-defeat exists along a Wellness Continuum I use in my workshops and coaching. I first learned about the continuum through the study of Adlerian Psychology at Phoenix Process Consultants and based on the book High-Level Wellness by Halbert L. Dunn.
Pre-mature death <– Self-defeating <– Discouragement <– Health (Neutral) –> Learning –> Encouragement –> Actualizing –> Living Life Fully
Health is actually a neutral spot. As we move from the middle toward the most minus position, death, we start with discouragement. When overly discouraged, we move to self-defeat and eventually to death. Our movement toward a full life includes learning and encouragement. This learning is a constant process. The more we learn about ourselves (and others), encourage ourselves and practice, the more authentic and real we become (actualizing). We are content and happy.
I tend to work with those on the spectrum who want to move from discouragement to encouragement. I know what it’s like to be discouraged and am grateful for those who helped move me to actualize enough to feel like I can help others do the same.
Step 1: Understand perfection
According to Adler, the striving for perfection is innate in all humans. In Alfred Adler Revisited, Richard E. Watts summarizes this striving for perfection (pg. 42); “According to Adler, the central human directionality is toward competence or self-mastery, what Adler called striving for perfection or superiority. This is an individual’s creative and compensatory answer to the normal and universal feelings of insignificance and disempowerment, and the accompanying beliefs that one is less than what one should be (i.e. feelings of inferiority). Thus, striving for perfection or superiority is the natural human desire to move from a perceived negative position to a perceived positive one.”
Perfectionism is not some disease or disorder. This desire for perfection exists inside each of us. We can use it to grow or we can use it to defeat. We chose based on how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. If we use our striving for perfection in a self-interested way, we won’t be well around others. If we use our striving for perfection in a socially-interested way, we all gain from each other.
Step 2: Uncover your beliefs about perfection
If your inner voice says something along the lines of “I must be perfect to survive, belong or be significant”, your beliefs are self-defeating. If you constantly say to yourself, if this were just X, it would be perfect or if I had Y I would be perfect – these are unhealthy internal dialogues. A healthier way to think about perfection is “I have done my best and I will continue to learn, improve or grow.”
If you’ve identified that you fall in the I-must-be-perfect category, you are not alone. Realize that changing your belief pattern takes time. You are now aware and can start catching your internal dialogue. One of the best tools I learned from John Reardon, Adlerian counselor, and trainer, is GEMO or Good Enough Move On. Keep that one in your pocket. I pull it out frequently.
The first time you catch yourself it will be after the fact and upon reflection. The act has already passed and you can’t do anything immediately about it. Your reflection encouragement becomes “I caught myself”. The second time you might catch yourself in the act, but the follow-through just wasn’t stoppable. Your encouragement reflection should then be “I am catching myself and next time I will…”. Upon further practice, you’ll catch yourself and immediately react. Your final encouragement reflection will then be “I caught myself and did Y” or “I caught myself and practiced GEMO” or something to that effect. Today, when I catch myself, I sometimes chuckle at the silliness of my perfectionist thoughts and with gratitude that I was able to turn it around. You can too.
Step 3: Notice the moments of perfection
I believe perfection does exist, but only as moments or brief encounters. Perfection is being in unity with someone or another being (like a piece of nature) and noticing the presence, beauty, and gratefulness of the moment. Those moments of perfection are the ones we often forget to bank in our memory.
One moment of perfection that comes up for me often is attending a Gretchen Wilson concert with a friend, her husband, and daughter, who was going through chemotherapy for a brain tumor. We were able to acquire Meet & Greet passes. My friend’s daughter, around 16 at the time, told Wilson that her music often helps her get through chemotherapy and its after-effects. Wilson thanked her, smiled and was very gracious with pictures. She even wore, on stage, the bracelet given by the girl used for one of her fundraisers.
The moment I remember most was leaving the tent. As we turned to look back, my friend and I saw Wilson briefly leave the tent to wipe away some tears and recompose herself. Wilson held strong for us and for the girl and was so affected by the experience, she had to take a break. Without saying a word, we two mothers embraced and started to cry in gratefulness for what we’d just experienced together and for the benefit of her daughter. For me, it was three mothers (the two of us and Wilson) who understand both the struggle and the deep gratitude to have the caring and support of others.
As I tell the story of this special moment, I get to relive it once again and those deep feelings of gratitude come bubbling back up. I am also grateful that the girl is now a young adult, graduated from college a few years back and has a job she enjoys. Her mother and I continue to have many moments of perfection between us and I feel blessed. Pay attention to and bank those perfect moments deep in memory. Consider writing them in a journal which you can later use when you’re feeling imperfect.
Producer Nina Jacobsen is said to have come up with the term Perfect Moment Alert (PMA). Let’s all practice PMA!!!
Contact me if you are ready to face your imperfections at firstname.lastname@example.org
Are you a young person struggling with perfectionism? I especially love working with young people nearing their time of independence. I have two children who graduated in the past few years and both are in college with a purpose and passion and I want that for you too. Helping high school juniors through that stressful year where everyone is asking about college and future plans is fulfilling.
Are you a parent with an overachieving child? Let’s unpack your beliefs around perfection and the language you are using which may be contributing to perfectionism. Or maybe you just want to help your children find their purpose and passions. Or maybe you’re about to transition to an empty nest and not sure how to let go.
View my Coaching page for more information. Contact me if you want to learn and grow or if you feel you’re stuck in a discouraging rut. I will help you move from discouragement or health (the neutral zone) up to a place where you’ll be learning, encouraged and living life fully. Email me at email@example.com.
In honor of Alexandra Valoras and a dear friend’s daughter; Abbey Duncan (find a scholarship here).
If you see anyone with a potential unrealistic belief about being perfect, take time to ask. View the video and use it as an opportunity for dialogue about the unrealistic perfectionist expectations and the self-defeating behaviors that lead to suicide.
Call the National Suicide Prevention line at (800) 273-8255 if you are in crisis or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting the word TALK to 741741. Find more at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Resource: Carlson, J., & Maniacci, M. P. (2012). Alfred Adler revisited.