Let’s take a break from formal clinical studies and approach the subject of compulsive perfectionism through the lens of Disney’s animated film Encanto. Encanto demonstrates the transformation from unhealthy compulsive to healthy compulsive at least as effectively as any medical description. A transformation that requires us to recall the original intent of perfectionism.
And let’s not turn up our noses at Disney. Our seriousness and dismissiveness often cause us to miss out on experiences that could make life a lot more fulfilling.
Disney stories are not just for kids. They’re often based on archetypal themes, universal patterns of experience that show that we’re not alone in our predicaments and that there are ways to move forward. Encanto is just this sort of story.
The Honorable Intent of Perfectionism
The story begins with a young mother (eventually known as Abuela) being pushed out of her home and her husband being murdered. She survives the trauma and believes that she and her three children have been saved by a miracle. After wandering, the Madrigal family settles down. Grandchildren come along and an “enchanted” village grows around them as well.
In order to protect her family from re-experiencing the tragedy she went through, Abuela becomes rigid and perfectionistic about how things need to be done. Community rituals must be followed precisely. Family members must execute their given talents flawlessly. If not, they’ll lose the magic that she believes protects them.
Abuela develops a strategy to keep everyone safe. But in the process she forgets about the feelings of the very people she was trying to protect. The foundation begins to fall apart.
Losing The Point
Which makes me think that when they wrote Encanto the good folks at Disney must have been reading the the symptoms of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). The first symptom reads:
“Is preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost.”
This describes Abuela perfectly.
(Alright, I said we’d get away from clinical stuff, but this business of forgetting the major point of the activity is really important. It is the major point!)
Parallels with the Compulsive Personality
Like Abuela, many people lose track of what they got so rigid for in the first place. Especially those with OCPD. They survive a difficult situation (either outright trauma or a particularly bad fit with the ubiquitous imperfections of parents) and they feel they a need to protect the “miracle” of their survival with lists, rules, and order.
No matter how mean they become, when people with OCPD behave badly it’s because they feel a responsibility, a pressure, to protect themselves and the people around them from harm. They feel compelled to take on the role of police, judge or priest and to live as perfectly as possible–no matter how much suffering it causes.
If they can remember what’s really most important to them, The Point of their lists, rules and order, they can turn their meticulous energy back onto the real problems.
But too often, as with Abuela, their foundation begins to fall apart before they can see or admit what’s happening: a fed-up partner threatens to leave, depression pulls them down, the pressure to be perfect becomes unsustainable, they lose a job, or they have the disturbing realization that their life feels meaningless. The foundation cracks.
The Shadow Side of Gifts
All of Abuela’s children and grandchildren have gifts, special skills that they’re supposed to use to help the community and make their family proud.
• Luisa has Herculean physical strength.
• Isabela has perfect beauty and the capacity to make things grow, especially flowers.
• Julieta can heal with food.
• Delores can hear the quietest sounds even from a great distance.
• Bruno can see the future, change in particular. But, as the family sings, “We don’t talk about Bruno.” They don’t want to hear what he has to say—so he hides himself away.
It’s all so amazing—the house, the family, the gifts. But the price is high.
All the children and grandchildren feel enormous pressure to perform. Work and dedication are needed to keep the miraculous candle burning. No pressure, but each new generation must use their special skill to keep it all from falling apart. And because it’s all in the interest of the community, it’s hard to challenge.
So no-one wants to recognize the effect that perfectionism is having on them.
Like members of the Madrigal family, compulsives have their own gifts, gifts such as meticulousness, hyper-conscientiousness, extra-ordinary energy to work, and determination. These all seem virtuous. This is how we all should be. Right?
Luisa’s Song: Underneath the Bravado
You’ll recall that Luisa is a female Hercules who spends all her time doing the heavy lifting for the community, including pianos, mules and buildings. She sings a powerful song, Surface Pressure (written by the creator of the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda) which describes what many compulsives experience so precisely that I’m tempted to include the complete lyrics. A few key ones will have to suffice.
I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous
I’m as tough as the crust of the earth is
I move mountains, I move churches
And I glow ’cause I know what my worth is
Under the surface
I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus
Under the surface
Was Hercules ever like “Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus”?
Under the surface
I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service
Does this feel familiar to anyone?
The Rejected Gift: Mirabel’s Vision
I should have said before that all of Abuela’s kids and grandkids are supposed to have a gift. If you don’t…well…just get out of the way.
It seems at first that our endearing heroine, Mirabel, was not given a gift. But she sees and says what no-one else has been willing to see. The family foundation is cracking. Her glasses symbolize her gift of vision.
Compulsives like Abuela fear change. Too often they’re convinced that they’re right. They think that their over-conscientiousness, rigidity and control have saved the day and will continue to—if the regimen is kept up perfectly. And they don’t want to listen to the Mirabels of the world when they see that something is way off.
Mirabel is seen as the cause of the problem. They believe that by questioning the status quo she’ll destroy the magic.
The Compulsive Fear of Change And Unwillingness to See
At the far end of the unhealthy compulsive personality spectrum, the individual thinks that how they’re living is just fine, thank you. They don’t want to see the problem with their control and criticism. They believe they have the answers, and that’s often a sign that they don’t.
Eventually the family begins to admit that things are falling apart. Abuela says that the solution is to work twice as hard.
But Mirabel sees that their perfection and overworking is already unsustainable. She says to Abuela, “I will never be good enough for you, will I? No matter how hard I try. No matter how hard any of us tries.”
Mirabel goes on a heroic journey to find out what’s wrong. I’ll leave this for you to see for yourself, but suffice it to say that it symbolizes an inner search to really see how we are living, and to honestly acknowledge what we’ve hidden away.
A New Foundation
Once Mirabel uncovers the mystery and returns from her journey, Abuela and the family admit the problem. They re-orient themselves: Abuela says: “I was given a miracle. A second chance. And I was so afraid that I would lose the miracle that I lost sight of who our miracle was for.”
The family realizes that their gifts need to be in service to the people, not to “the miracle.” “The miracle is you”—the people–not perfection.
Like the whole Madrigal family, people who have unhealthy compulsive tendencies tend to value order, perfection and control for those tendencies themselves, rather than for the people they can serve. They miss the point.
As I point out in my book, The Healthy Compulsive,
A healthy compulsive is one whose energy and talents for achievement are used consciously in the service of passion, love, and purpose. An unhealthy compulsive is one whose energy and talents for achievement have been hijacked by fear and its henchman, anger. Both are driven: one by meaning, the other by dread.
With Mirabel’s courageous willingness to see, to really look at what’s happening, they realize: “We need a new foundation. We are more than just our gift.”
What is the new foundation? A way of living based not on perfection but on supporting those whom the perfection was originally intended to serve.