People with obsessive-compulsive personality tendencies and Type-A personality are driven to be “good” in some professional, personal, or moral way. They feel a fairly constant internal pressure to do things and do them perfectly.
But what for? What are you trying to prove by being so good?
I believe that much of the effort that goes into being good is motivated by natural inclination. Some people are just wired more for production, people-pleasing and perfection than others. But if there is also underlying insecurity, these tendencies get magnified to an unhealthy degree.
Under the surface of their efforts to be “good” they feel a need to compensate and to prove that they’re not lazy, stupid, sloppy or selfish. They want to convince other people, and themselves, that they’re hard-working, smart, meticulous, caring, generous and respectable.
Even though it sometimes actually puts more distance between them and other people.
Compulsives, in my observation, work harder to earn respect than love. This causes problems in relationships. It leads to priorities that don’t make sense to other people.
And this tendency to try to prove that they’re good or respectable also gets in the way of happiness, peace of mind and mental health.
Batman’s Guilt Complex
Think about Batman. In some versions of his story, he feels guilty for his parents’ death. They were murdered one night when the three of them were out because of his “selfish” requests. He then spent a lifetime proving to himself that he wasn’t selfish. Yes, he did genuinely want to rid Gotham of evil, but he was also driven by his need to prove himself. He was not a happy man.
Most compulsives and Type A’s have a humbler version of this heroic disposition, leading them to overwork in some way, even if it’s not obvious to them that they’re trying to prove something.
When one’s self-esteem is at stake the consequences of not succeeding become so huge that it leaves no room for other things in life, whether it’s because you’re cleaning the kitchen, or trying to start a hugely successful company.
Let’s look at a more human example.
Ned Tries to Prove Himself With Being So Good
Ned was not the coolest kid in his class, though he was the smartest. He didn’t experience outright bullying, but other kids did tease him about being a nerdy loser. And he was usually excluded. The rejections continued until he reached college, when he found a few people that he was more in synch with.
But the scars from the earlier rejections lasted, and Ned was determined to get respect. He vowed that he would prove himself to be a winner by succeeding. He eventually concluded, “I don’t care if they like me, I just don’t want anyone to think I’m a loser.”
This more obvious social issue sat on top of two other deeper, but less obvious issues.
Supportive Parents and Original Sin
His parents were very supportive. Maybe too supportive. They believed Ned was destined to do great things. They saw that he worked hard, was conscientious, and paid attention to detail. More, they saw him as talented. Surely all those things made him special and would land him in a good place.
But Ned wasn’t as convinced. Peer opinion meant more than parental opinion. And, besides, he knew that any success he had had in middle and high school was won not by talent but by hard work. Only if he kept his nose to the grindstone would he achieve what they thought he should achieve. While he certainly wanted to prove to others that he had worth, he also had to prove to himself that he could live up to his parents’ expectations.
His Catholic upbringing added an additional layer of insecurity. The version of the teaching that he heard in the Church was “You’re guilty until you prove your innocence.” Even though he had quit going to church, he carried the message that he was not a good person and that life is a test to see if you can prove that you are good after all.
He drove himself relentlessly, well into adulthood, trying to prove to himself, his parents, his peers and the universe that he was a good person and he deserved respect. This “I’ll Show You” mantra only slipped into consciousness occasionally. But it was always in the back of his mind, driving him to work harder and be better.
When things got in his way he became furious because they blocked him from his goal of proving himself. The anger fed on itself because he needed to prove that he was right and someone else was wrong. Like an attorney, he kept looking for all the reasons he was right, ignoring any suggestions that he might need to change himself.
Ned did have talents—his natural desire to solve problems, and his industriousness among them. These tendencies can be very satisfying. But, as happens to many people, when these talents are hijacked to prove yourself, succeeding is no longer simply desired, but desperately needed. The need to prove drowns out cries from body and soul for a more balanced life: more pleasure, more peace, and more connection.
This is the thing about being compulsive. It can be a blessing or a curse. It becomes a curse when it is used to prove goodness and value.
Proving Yourself to Be Good Is Human…To a Point
Let’s not pathologize this need to prove ourselves. Proving that we’re reliable, trustworthy, strong or otherwise desirable was a part of our evolution. It was built into us as we evolved in tribes of 75 people. A good reputation was necessary if you were to stay in the tribe and not be thrown out on your own.
And the reality is that you are being judged. You do have to prove that you add value at your workplace. And yes, they are checking you out on that first date. But not about what you think.
Rarely do people expect perfection. In fact, what many compulsive perfectionists miss is that when they are trying to prove that they’re respectable they’re really proving that they’re very difficult to get along with.
It’s very human to want to be respected for who we are. But betraying who we really are to get respect will lead to anxiety and depression.
Natural and Unnatural Self-Improvement
This push to prove may also be fueled by the natural tendency to take on challenges and grow personally. It’s instinctual to want to evolve and fulfill our potential. But this energy can also be co-opted to prove that we’re respectable.
For instance, the energy that would naturally go into becoming a better teacher might be co-opted to prove that you are okay after all, despite what everyone said about you. This could bring anxiety to teaching that could get in the way of both teacher and students progressing.
Letting Go of Proving Yourself
To begin to work your way out of this trap, ask yourself the following questions. Take your time as the answers may not be obvious at first:
- How are you trying to get people to see you, and how do you want to see yourself?
- Is this to compensate for how you imagine people see you?
- Check to see if you feel extra pressure or urgency in your body to prove yourself.
- What is the story you’ve told yourself that has lead you to feel that you need to make others see you differently? Might that story be inaccurate?
- Have your natural tendencies for self-improvement been hijacked to prove that you’re respectable? Has that energy gone into appearances rather than growth?
- Do you sacrifice too much (e.g. relationships, health, pleasure) in trying to get them (or yourself) to see you in a particular way?
- Where does your reputation sit in your list of priorities? What goals might be more fulfilling to you than proving yourself?
It would be unrealistic to try not to care what the people around you think of you. But trying to convince everyone that you’re good—good in whatever way you think you need to be seen–may lead you to pursue projects and perfection that are actually self-destructive.
Strive for your ideals. But don’t let them get hijacked by your insecurity.