As you read through my initial description of The Black and White Lens, and the negative effect it has on our thoughts and feelings, you might have realized that this lens is often at play in the concept most of us know as perfectionism. If you did, then bravo to you! If not, don’t worry (or put yourself into the “nothing” category; learning the Mindset Method is a process, just like playing the violin, learning to cook, or working to become better at anything in life). As in perfectionism, looking through The Black and White Lens strengthens the belief that only the “best” actually counts for anything and that pretty much everything else is a failure (which is certainly a form of “elitism” directed at ourselves). Now, you might say, “hey, no problem, I’ll just be perfect then; after all, I’ve been working toward this goal my entire life, anyway.”
Well, one problem with this goal, and this may be hard to hear, is that perfection doesn’t actually exist. If you don’t believe me, you can take a look at what is commonly known as the “Normal Bell Curve” one day (Google it), and you’ll see what I mean. Every clean floor has dust and every dusty floor has clean parts. And even if perfection were to exist, the category containing it could have only one occupant! After all, there can only be one richest person in the world, one smartest person, or one most attractive. And even within our own lives, without any comparison to others, if we use this harsh standard of perfection, that means we can have only one happiest moment, one most successful year financially, one best hair day, etc. Thus, your odds of reaching this standard are slim and fleeting, and once it’s happened, it’s happened (or so we think, because we can’t actually ever know when or if we will actually surpass that moment of perfection; more on this later, when we discuss The Crystal Ball Lens). Sadly, however, this truth doesn’t prevent billions of people all over the world from working like mad every day trying to hit the bull’s eye and live up to it. And what happens when they don’t, which is pretty much always? Of course, they fall into the “nothing” category. Get an A minus on a test? Failure. Make one speaking error in a 2 hour presentation? Failure. Receive one abnormal reading on a 40 item blood test? Failure. So not only does a whole lot of energy go into trying to hit the mark of perfection (which is simply exhausting), but it rarely yields a feeling of success.
Okay, so you may ask, “well, what about when you do get a score of 100% on a test, and do have that amazing hair day, wouldn’t that be really satisfying?” Well, if you are kind enough to allow yourself to actually recognize the achievement, perhaps it would. But this is not likely to last long, and will probably be a very short-term boost, until the very next challenge presents itself, and you begin to nervously aim for that bull’s eye again. That’s when the reality of imperfection sets back in and you get kicked out of the country club again! And how would you feel then, after working so hard on something and not getting the psychological or emotional reward you were after? Probably pretty frustrated or hopeless. And after seeing yourself go through this painful cycle several times, you would almost certainly come to believe that your degree of actual success, loveability, self-esteem or happiness was resting on an all but impossible challenge (extremely difficult to achieve and SO easy to lose). How would that experience shape the way you think and feel about pursuing such goals in the future? Would it increase your excitement, motivation and joy for the process? Probably not (and I will say more about why this is likely to occur later, when we discuss a fascinating psychological phenomenon called Cognitive Dissonance). No, most likely, you would:
- Become recurrently anxious and fearful about not “making it;”
- You would become quickly exhausted by your feverish and desperate attempts to do so;
- You would become recurrently discouraged and disappointed when the standard is not met; and
- Finally, you would become resentful and bitter about the “spin cycle” in which you have seen yourself be stuck.
And if the goal of your efforts was to try and please someone else and make them happy or at least happy with you (and there will be a lot more on this later; sometimes we call this “interpersonal perfectionism”), you would also repeatedly experience failure, because, ultimately, we don’t actually have much control over what others think, feel or do. And therefore, you could also easily become resentful and angry because you will see that most other people don’t seem to be working nearly as hard to please you, or avoid upsetting you, as you are working to please or avoid upsetting them. We so love to believe in the ideal concepts of fairness and “the golden rule,” however we see these principles violated in our lives and around the world every single day. So, does this vicious little cycle sound familiar to you? Based on my work with patients who struggle with depression, anxiety and anger, it is awfully common, and logical, particularly among perfectionists and those who view themselves and their lives through The Black and White Lens.
Finally, another painfully unjust aspect of looking through this lens is that such a great many of the most wondrous, enjoyable, beautiful, creative, complex and mysterious aspects of life simply get lost in the shuffle. This is because The Black and White Lens demands complete clarity from the get go; thus, works in progress, like shades of gray, don’t count for anything. The first few notes of a song to be written, the initial brush strokes of a painting, or those first few exciting yards ridden on a bicycle without training wheels, which almost always end in a fall or a skinned knee, all would get lumped into the “nothing” category. Can you even imagine what it would be like to grow up looking at yourself and your life through a lens like this? Well, sadly, many of us do. And you can easily see, based on what I have shared with you, how the use of the Black and White Lens, just by itself, can and does so easily lead to depression, anxiety or anger, or even to all three.
Okay, now it is time for a confession. I had intended, when I began writing this installment, to actually take you through to the “so what can I do about it?” portion, wherein we could actually begin to discuss ways of reversing or neutralizing the toxic effect The Black and White Lens has on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. But you know what? I just can’t. My resources for today are not going to allow that (that is, if I want to eat, relax, play with my cats, watch some tv, read or otherwise have a genuinely full life, and I most certainly do). I will, however, take this opportunity to tell you that I am going to now acknowledge the work I did today in writing this material, even though it is not finished. I will choose to focus on the value of the “work in progress,” recognize how much ground I gained in fleshing this idea out, and I am going to anticipate, with pleasure and excitement, what is to come. In this way, I am actually taking that Black and White Lens off of my own camera altogether and replacing it with a nice, generous Wide Angle Lens that sees far beyond the narrow focus on whether or not I actually got as far as I might have liked to today. After all, progress is a healthier goal than perfection.
Thank you again for reading. I wish you peace, a pleasant rest of your own day, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon.