Reflection 31: Perfectionism

One troubling aspect of psychotherapy is its focus on symptoms, rather that causes. Depression and related conditions, for example, consume 9 different DSM categories and more than 30 subcategories. And while many clients are chemically prone to depression – so that symptom alleviation is, in fact, a key issue – the great majority are dealing with non-organic issues as well.

Symptom relief is, without question, an urgent goal. But the growing tendency is to stop there; to see psychotropic medications and cognitive/behavioral interventions, not as important tactics in a larger fight, but as ends in themselves.

Today, more than 90% of psychiatrists – the most educated and highly compensated clinicians – prescribe drugs and do nothing more. In addition, more and more “talk based” clinicians have adopted short-term approaches to therapy, driven by insurance companies’ demands for “measurable” success toward “concrete” goals.

The reason for this trend is, to me, self-evident. The mental health establishment, like every other industry of any size and persistence, is not interested in pursuing problems to their root causes. Why? Because so many of the real culprits, lurking behind our emotional issues, are the unexamined values that keep us locked into our roles as compliant workers and consumers. Implicitly recognizing this reality, the mainstream culture – with its genius for self-perpetuation – will financially starve and marginalize healing strategies that seriously challenge its central outlooks and beliefs.

Salvatore Menuchin’s career is an object lesson in this phenomenon. His systems approach to family therapy was widely recognized and became a generative force in the profession. But his later work – applying these same ideas to larger social structures – was mostly ignored. Why? Because it challenged our mainstream ways of operating.


In this Reflection, I deal with one of the root, non-organic causes of so much of our psychic dysfunction: Perfectionism. This mindset – an almost impossible to resist byproduct of our obsession with competition, dominance and control – is one of the more obvious causes, not just of depression, but also of our epidemic of anxiety, shame, and self-judgment.

Notwithstanding this reality, perfectionism is not a condition that is dealt with in the DSM. Indeed, the culture’s ability to deflect attention from the real drivers of our pain is exemplified by this remarkable fact: Far from being seen as a problem, perfectionism – dressed up in more acceptable language – is widely seen as a positive value, to be celebrated and encouraged.

This rhetoric is so pervasive that we scarcely notice, and rarely comment on, its perversity.

For me, the archetypal example is the culture’s constant reminder that “we can do anything we want, if we just try hard enough.” What is so chilling about this pervasive cultural rallying cry is this: It studiously omits the aphorism’s inescapable second clause: “And if you don’t accomplish your goals, there is something wrong with you.”

This statement is, of course demonstrably false. The odds of a poor African American child going to an Ivy League college, after 12 years at a ghetto based public school, are astronomically small. Similarly, if you work in a dying industry or seek a job in a saturated market, you may not find any work at all let alone the position of your dreams.

Notwithstanding the mainstream culture’s perfectionist rhetoric – exemplified by this phrase – the primary reason for these and most other “failures” is not a lack of effort. To the contrary,

  1. The game is fixed. Those with money and connections have a long head start; and
  2. It is arbitrary. Determined or not, we will fail if – for whatever reason, good or bad – you get on the wrong side of the boss; and,
  3. Like it or not, we are all limited by our human frailties.


What is interesting is that we know all this. And yet, at a personal level, utterly fail to follow through on its implications.

For most of us – when it comes to our situation – there are no excuses. Falling short, my automatic response is that “I” am the problem. Pointing to external causes feels wimpy and shameful. I need to “man up,” take responsibility, redouble my efforts to do better the next time. Never mind:

  • That there were massive lay offs (I, somehow, should be the exception); or
  • That I was sick – or distracted by my child’s crisis at school; or
  • That I am not, and never will be, a good pubic speaker.

None of these things matter. My presentation should have been crisp, tight, and compelling.

It is as though we walk around with a measuring stick in our heads, remorselessly assessing our value, judging any outcome that doesn’t approach 100% as a failure. And in this unforgiving landscape, “wins” – for most of us – become fleeting visits to an all but impossible to attain mountaintop; moments of surcease in a larger system in which losing is the norm.

Thus, for example, I vividly remember a friend’s powerful feelings of failure when, as one of four finalists for a position sought by over 300 applicants; she failed to get the job. And, too, the client’s intense feelings of shame because his boss – a man he didn’t like or respect – told him he wasn’t measuring up.

These sorts of deeply engrained, automatic responses breed a wide variety of psychically discouraging mindsets:

  • Ashamed of our failure, we isolate.
  • Reflexively judging and doubting ourselves, we become cautious, indecisive, and defensive.
  • Unable to shake the sense than we are “defective, “less than,” “a fraud,” we stop trying, content to go through the motions.

Thus, while the mainstream rhetoric is about achieving great things, our perfectionist mindsets actually move most of us in the opposite direction, with chilling effectiveness. This outcome is wonderfully effective – if the goal is to create a pandemic of spirit-sapping mindsets, a result that – not coincidentally – deeply discourages efforts to challenge and change our current, mainstream ways of operating.


Note, importantly, that our obsession with individual perfection deeply obscures the systemic factors that contribute to what ails us – reinforcing our status quo ways of operating in this way as well.

Thus, millions of people, financially leveled by the economic downturn that occurred after the 2008 housing and financial meltdown, took second jobs and economized to a point of real pain. And yet, remarkably, there was no perceptible movement to reform our patently corrupt financial system. Similarly, a handful of “bad actors” were prosecuted for torturing prisoners in Iraq while the policies they carried out, and the people who created them, were ignored.

The implicit message in each of these examples? Bad policies and malevolent systems don’t matter. “Good” people should just know what the right thing to do is – and have the will to do it.


Because perfectionism is a byproduct of the culture’s deeply engrained, win/lose values system, programs such as Radical Decency – that seek to systematically implement more humane ways of operating – are the most strategically viable response. These comprehensive, values-based strategies are the strong medicine we need to deal with this virulent cultural disease.

As we re-orient our energy toward the consuming task of being decent in all that we do, perfectionism will increasingly be seen as an unwanted distraction; an attention and energy draining habit of mind that diverts us from our more ennobling goal. With time, it will wither and recede.

Getting from “here” to “there” is, however, an enormous challenge. Being creatures of habit, there is no easy way to wean our selves from our perfectionist mindsets. But while the work is hard, the pay-offs are, potentially, life changing. While it is a long shot, to be sure, it is – as I see it – the most realistic path toward creating a more nourishing lives and meaningfully contributing to a more decent and humane world.

Reflection 30: In Defense of Our Troubling Values

Central to Radical Decency is the belief that:

  1. A specific set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – are pre-eminent in our culture and, thus, wildly over-emphasized in our day by day choices;
  2. That the result is incalculable damage our selves, others, and the world; and,
  3. If we hope to live differently and better, we need to wean ourselves from the corrosive habits of living, spawned by the relentless emphasis on these values, replacing them with more decent ways of being.

Repeating this formulation over and over, it is easy to create a pantheon of good and bad values: Respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – good; compete and win, dominate and control – bad.

Doing so, however, misses the point. The problem is not inherent in the values themselves. It lies, instead, in their over-emphasis and the relentless, culturally based pressure to conform to their strictures.

Radical Decency puts its priority on modeling and promoting virtues that are, in our culture, chronically neglected: Attending to the well being of the socially and economically disenfranchised; treating others with respect; being empathic and fair even when it draws energy from our competitive aspirations; focusing – with the seriousness it deserves – on our need for rest, reflection, novelty, and play.

But promoting these neglected values is not the full story. We are multi-faceted beings, with a wide range of dispositions – from the most loving and affiliative to highly aggressive and dominating. We also operate in diverse and, all too frequently, indifferent and unforgiving environments.

So even as we pursue our aspirational “decency” goals, we need to constructively employ and manage our diverse biological instincts, and realistically come to grips with these harsh cultural realities that surround us. For these reasons, the culture’s predominant “compete and win” values have an important – though far more limited – role to play in our lives.


Take competition, for example. We are socialized in schools where the emphasis on testing, grades, and achievement is pervasive; the goal being to create successful adult competitors; “winners” in life. Sadly – inevitably – this has led: (1) to an epidemic of self-judgment, anxiety, and depression as we strive, in vain, for unending success and perfection; and (2) to a myriad of self-medicating strategies (work, sex, alcohol) as we seek to maintain this psychically compromised approach to living.

Given these disheartening realities, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a competitive spirit, properly used, sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance and, at its best, creates an intimate bond with co-competitors. An innate part of our nature, it can add its own unique zest to the fabric of our lives.

In other words, competitiveness is not the problem. It is, instead, the grim, “winning is the only point” attitude that threatens to entirely eclipse its nourishing aspects.

How far gone are we? Pretty far – and, I am afraid, farther than we think.

As things stand now, the coaches and parents of 10 year olds, who scream at referees – and at kids who don’t play well – are a cultural commonplace. And our “normal” expectation is that businesses will distort the truth, skimp on quality, and overreach on pricing, all to improve profitability; that is, to win.

Contrast these attitudes with the Talmud’s injunction that a losing litigant should thank the judge for enlightening him as to the correct behavior. Reading that as a young attorney, I was brought up short. It seemed so sensible and appealing – and so utterly foreign to the world in which I operated.

Now, 30 years later, that sensibility seems even more farfetched. But imagine how different things would be if an attitude of curiosity, possibility, openness and ease were more present in our attitude as lawyers and litigants – and in other competitions as well?


We also need to look beyond the inhumane versions of domination and control that are rampant in our culture. Like competitiveness, these are aspects of our psychic make-up that, used judiciously, are useful and, at times, indispensable.

Every day, and in virtually every area of living, we are surrounded by people who operate by the culture’s mainstream values. As a result, we continually confront this dilemma: How can I be appropriately self-protective – decency to self – without sacrificing decency to others and the world?

In many instances, the best approach is to create a firm boundary – a form of control.

As I often remind clients that, sharing your anger with a total stranger – the guy who shoves his way to the front of the line, for example – is an act of intimacy. You are disclosing, to him, exactly how you feel.

With that, your vulnerability increases and an emotional connection is created with a person with whom you actually want no connection at all. Better to let his behavior pass without comment, managing your feelings either alone or with the support of someone you trust.

But sometimes this option is not viable. The bully persists. Or the bully is your boss or your child’s teacher. Or you are dealing with a person that seems intent on harming you. In these situations, other acts of control or domination may be called for.

Thus, far from being wrong, lying to a would-be rapist – control by deception – is an invaluable skill. And, after exhausting more respectful options, appropriately modulated counter aggression may be the best option when confronted with an implacable foe, intent on dominating and controlling you. Indeed, even a physical attack may be appropriate when the only other option is serious injury or death from an unprovoked attack.


A final thought: While understanding the “good” side of these mainstream values is an important exercise, so too is an openness and curiosity about why these values developed in the first place and, with that, the role play in our lives. While the primary goal is, without question, to limit their outsized influence, we should strive not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Our traditional gender roles offer a good example. A passive/placating woman and unemotional/unresponsive/work-first man – these patriarchal archetypes are poster children for our pattern of dominance and control and the incalculable pain it causes. But we need to understand why patriarchy evolved in the first place: Its role in our evolutionary history.

Women evolved, across our 300,000-year history as Homo sapiens, to be our early warning system; the folks who scan for danger. And since duplicating this process made no sense, men evolved as reactors – not to the environment – but to women’s emotions.

Given this evolutionary division of labor, men and women developed different emotional sensitivities. Woman – wired to react to danger – are especially susceptible to safety issues whereas men. Men on the other hand – wired to their women – strive to be good providers, protectors and lovers and, for that reason, are more susceptible to shame.

These emotional predispositions, deeply embedded in our psyches through millennia of evolution, continue to influence our behaviors. Understanding this, the behavior of a placating woman is much more understandable.

Her steady message to her mate – that he is a good provider, protector and lover – minimizes his shame and frees him to play his traditional role more effectively. In an analogous way, a stoic man – keeping his fears and anxieties to himself – is better able to attend to his spouse’s immediate, potentially safety-threatening concerns.

Since we no longer live as hunter/gatherers, these restricted gender roles no longer serve us. However, teasing out these sorts of behavioral nuggets in patriarchy’s otherwise highly destructive pattern of dominance and control, allow us to make smarter more modulated choices; choices that are egalitarian but, at the same time, attend (for example) to “her” sensitivity to safety issues and “his” susceptibility to shame.

Reflection 29: Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots

By 1993, after 23 years in Philadelphia, I had sunk deep roots. I was active on numerous nonprofit boards in the Jewish, legal, and civic worlds. My wife and I had lots of acquaintances, mostly through our professional and volunteer activities. We belonged to a synagogue and swim club; went to parties, theatre, and dance. If someone had asked me then, I probably would have said, “of course I have community.”

But I would have been wrong

My lesson in real community began, that year, when I participated in the Essential Experience Workshop. While the “EE” Workshop was a great experience, the real eye opener, for me, was the community I was invited to join when the weekend ended.

In retrospect, I am reminded of an interview with a woman who didn’t realize she was a lesbian until her 40s. Finally having sex with another woman, her reaction was: “So this is what they’ve been talking about!” Before the workshop I – like her – didn’t know what I was missing because, quite simply, I had never experienced it. Becoming a part of the EE community was a true awakening.

Pre-EE, my “community” consisted of a series of friendships, with each relationship requiring my continuing attention. In EE, however, I became a part of something bigger than me. Even when I was preoccupied elsewhere, I knew the community was there – a home and refuge to which I could always return.

EE is communal and non-authoritarian in structure and feel; a quality that is, I suspect, present in most other vibrant communities. As members, we are not slotted into an existing hierarchy. Instead, we are invited into a brotherhood of like-minded people, working together to create a shared environment. Knowing that it belongs to us – and depends on us for its continued vitality – we show up; participate in its activities, traditions, and rituals; and to assume leadership roles as needed.

My level of involvement with different EE members varies greatly. But my sense of connection goes beyond the vagaries of individual relationship. Meeting an EE grad for the first time, I presume a common outlook and shared respect, affection, and loyalty that are both general (for the community) and specific (for each member). And I reasonably expect these feelings to be reciprocated.


With EE as my classroom, I have developed a much richer sense of what community is and how powerfully it can shape our lives. I have also come to believe that meaningful and lasting change – in our lives and in the world – can only occur when we reinforce and magnify our individual efforts through communal involvements.

Creating community is, however, a huge challenge. Why? Because we live in a culture where individualism is rampant. “Do you own thing,” “make your dream happen,” “you can do anything, if you by just try hard enough”– these ideas have become iconic: Constantly repeated; seldom examined; deeply influential in our lives. Consumed with building individual careers, we have, in the last 60 years, massively withdrawn from our churches, fraternal organizations, and unions – a process that Robert Putnam painstakingly documents in Bowling Alone (2001).

This unraveling of our communal ways is a radical departure from habits of living that endured for countless millennia. As hunter/gatherers, community was the taken-for-granted context in which we lived for 290,000 out of the 300,000 years in which we have existed as Homo sapiens. And even just 150 years ago, most people still lived their lives in a single location, sharing a common culture, with an unchanging group of people.

This shift away from community is something that seems to have just happened, with little or no awareness on our part. The result? We tend to see it as an unavoidable byproduct of the technological advances of the last 60 years.

But this is not true. These changes are, in fact, the result of historical forces that, while powerful and enduring, are by not means foreordained. Understanding these forces is critically important, lest we slip into passive acceptance of this “inevitable” shift.

To understand this point, recall the “futurists” of the 1950s. These experts – a staple of secondary education in that era – foresaw life-altering technological breakthroughs in the ensuing decades and confidently predicted that, by the year 2000, three-day workweeks would be the norm.

So why is it that these experts, so prescient in their technological predictions, were so wildly off base in predicting their social consequences? Because they failed to consider the crucial role that values play in our history. In a culture in which competition, dominance and control are the predominant values, the use of these new technologies to compete better, faster, and harder should not have been a surprise.

In short, values are the driving force behind many, if not most, of the really big changes that occur in the ways in which we live, including the precipitous decline in communal connections. These changes don’t “just happen.”


What, then, are the values-based historical factors that have led to the recent, precipitous decline of community?

Jared Diamond and others point out that, about starting 15,000 years ago, we humans domesticated plants and animals. This momentous event made settled communities feasible and also allowed one group – controlling the food supply – to dominate others. And so began a species-altering shift toward a compete and win, dominate and control ideology.

Viewed in this context, there is nothing remarkable about the process that has unfolded over the last 60 years. For millennia, new technologies have been reflexively co-opted by the beneficiaries of this authoritarian trend, to expand and deepen their power. So, very predictably, the massive technological advances of the last half-century have been deployed in ways that further entrench these status quo forces.

So how does a weakening of our communal ways fit into this process? Because challenges to entrenched systems are far more likely to occur when people organize. And vibrant communal organizations are the fertile ground out of which these transformative social movements typically arise. Thus, promoting rootlessness through the cult of individualism and a headlong pursuit of personal power and, then, using our new technologies to intensify that pursuit, is an utterly expectable outcome.

Indeed, the only really novel aspect of the last 60 years – and this is no small thing – is rapidity of the change process. Life-altering technologies are now being developed with mind-boggling rapidity – jet travel, television, instant global communication, computer-based information management. Seismic shifts in the ways in which we live, including the rapidly accelerating demise of our communal organizations, are now measured in years and decades, and not centuries and millennia.


There are important lessons to be drawn from all of this. The first is positive. Since the values that predominate in our culture are the product of historical forces, they can be undone. Fundamental change is possible.

But we also need to recognize the depth of the challenge. Glib and easy answers do not exist for a problem that is 15,000 years in the making. We need to do what we can – now, in our time – and hope that others will build on what we leave behind.

So what needs to be done? Since change is much more likely to happen when we join our efforts with others, one key piece of the work is to create new, and newly re-vitalized, communal organizations. And, in order to do this, we need to systematically cultivate alternative value systems, such as Radical Decency, that impel us toward communal involvements – instead of having a vested interest in their demise.

Living in and through these more cooperative models of living, we will be better able to deepen our understanding of the challenges we face; hone more creative and effective change strategies; and to magnify our impact by creating the communal ground out of which larger social and political movements can emerge.

A final thought: Business is the primary driver of the values that predominate in our culture. The majority of our days, and the great bulk of our most productive hours, are devoted work and career. For that reason, the idea of focusing on the creation of values-based, communal models in business seems particularly compelling. Our workplaces need to become an extension of our deepest values, instead of being an unfortunate exception to them – at the center of our lives.