There is sometimes a certain self-deception in perfectionism which can tragically rob us of more fulfilling lives, lives which could be lived in service to more gratifying ideals and goals. We might like to think we are living according to our values, but out of insecurity end up valuing perfectionism itself instead.
Bob Dylan famously sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I would paraphrase him slightly and say “You’re gonna have to serve somebody or something,” an ideal or a principle, even if that ideal is to serve no person, ideal or principle.
The question is, how consciously will you serve?
One of the core tasks in becoming a healthy compulsive that I’ve emphasized in this blog and in my book, is to identify your main priorities and values and to live in accord with them. We can either use perfectionism in the service of those ideals, or allow it to use us in service of less consciously chosen goals.
Far too often people lose sight of their priorities, deceive themselves, and, sadly, spend their life in service to ideals that blind them to the ones that are truly important.
The Remains of the Day–In Service to a Nazi Sympathizer
This point was driven home to me recently when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly acclaimed novel, The Remains of the Day.
In the novel an English butler (Stevens) is reviewing his life and service over the first half of the 20th century. He’s taken great pride in his work, particularly for serving with dignity and for serving someone he thought was playing an important role in the world.
Every detail of the management of the house is approached with perfection so that his employer can pursue his goals without distraction. Stevens strives to be unflappable and to override his own feelings and needs.
He waits on his boss with blind respect, unwilling to recognize that he is a Nazi sympathizer trying to garner support for an alliance between England and Germany before WW II. His boss is not a Nazi himself. In fact, he looks as if he is just trying to help nations get along. So Stevens likes to think that he has noble ideals that are worth supporting.
Self-deception number one for Stevens.
The Remains of a Life–Self-Deception in Perfectionism
At the urging of his boss, Stevens decides to take a vacation. He plans a five-day tour of the countryside. He justifies the trip to himself by arranging to call on the former housekeeper of the manor, the former Miss Kenton, with the idea that she would want to come back and serve there again.
You see, Stevens has made some slight errors in his work recently and he’s decided that he needs more help on the staff to prevent such imperfections.
Or at least that’s what he tells himself about why he’ll visit her. It’s all strictly professional, of course.
During his tour, he reflects on his life, with both satisfaction and regrets.
Much of his reflection concerns Miss Kenton. He recalls how they had tea together daily. How she brought him flowers. How one day he was sure she was crying in her room behind the closed door, but he chose to move on to his duties rather than check in on her.
The reader can tell that her frequent efforts to get him to notice that there is something more than professional between them fall not just on deaf ears, but also on a heart long ago packed away into cold storage. He’s always running off to serve the master of the house, too busy to attend to emotional matters.
Utterly frustrated with him, she leaves and marries someone else.
I suspect that most readers also become frustrated with him for his self-deception about his feelings for Miss Kenton. While some of the more compulsive among you might think it perfectly reasonable that he keep his focus on his job and continue to aspire to his ideal of serving as the perfect butler, most people would probably like to give him a good whop upside the head to wake him up to his feeling side.
Which leads to my point. Like Stevens, we can get caught serving ideals that, while perhaps not as extreme as those of a Nazi, have the same quality of rigid control. Remember, Stevens believes that serving his boss loyally, whatever the circumstance, is the honorable thing to do. And that he had often reflected on what was most important to him.
Still, he hoodwinked himself. Self-deception number two.
Had he been more honest with himself, he might have noticed there was more than professional motivation behind his efforts to get Miss Kenton to return to the house.
Had he tried to understand his efforts to get her to come back more symbolically, he might have realized that what Miss Kenton meant to him was a more emotional, receptive, and connected approach to life, the approach that was really needed to cure him of his “imperfections.” What he really needed to bring back into his life was a larger sense of what was important.
But he deceived himself into thinking that all he needed to do for a fulfilling life was to serve a noble man nobly.
Serving Deceptive Values
Can we ever know if we’ve done the same and deceived ourselves? Is it possible to know if the standards and rules we’ve set have become tyrannical themselves, and lead us to forget about ideals that would really be fulfilling?
Here are some examples of how that happens:
• A volunteer begins organizing local events to promote community spirit and cooperation, but becomes irate and resentful when his neighbors don’t participate.
• A parent focuses on their child’s grades to ensure a bright future, but forgets about the child’s feelings in the present moment of intense adolescent stress.
• A man starts a summer camp to support adolescents in open-minded thinking, free from rigidity and mainstream compliance, but becomes highly critical of any religion the campers may have been raised in or become curious about.
• The primary wage-earner in a family convinces him- or her-self that earning more money is the best way they can care for their family, when what the family really needs is his or her personal attention and participation.
• The stay-at-home partner in a marriage manages the home and children perfectly, but withholds affection, interest and respect from the working partner. His or her meticulous management of the household becomes a weapon of righteousness to punish their partner for their less exacting and more spontaneous approach to life.
Here are some signs that you may be deceiving yourself about what’s really important:
• Defensiveness when your identity as a good person is questioned
• Focus on one priority to the exclusion of others
• Disconnection from others
• Rigidity and all-or-nothing thinking
• Fleeting fantasies about change
Think of questioning yourself about who or what you are serving as a chance to unburden yourself. Admitting what you really feel and want can be very liberating. This isn’t a tribunal. Here are some steps to help you:
• Seek wholeness, not perfection. Ask yourself, “What have I left out of my life? What have I been afraid to include?”
• Understand the function of self-deception. We often latch on to tyrannical ideals because they serve a purpose. Typically, that purpose is to remedy insecurity about how loveable, virtuous or hardworking we are. It’s understandable you adopted that strategy, but it doesn’t work.
• Accept your imperfections. Perfectionism promises relief from insecurity, but actually digs the hole deeper. An honest claiming of our value as we are is crucial to breaking the cycle of insecurity and over-reaching.
• Identify the values you really do want to honor. Letting go of attachment to a rigidly held priority is easier when we have something more meaningful to embrace instead.
• Have patience. If you do recognize some self-deception in your behavior, be patient with yourself as you try to change. Misplaced priorities do not change so quickly.
One of the reasons the story of the butler Stevens can he helpful to us is that we don’t see him as the Nazi, but as an ideology he unwittingly served. We don’t have to see our identity in a harsh light, but understand where we have misplaced our service, and chose more fulfilling goals.