I remember feeling very shy and anxious as a young child. I seem to have been acutely aware for much of my young life of the ever-present possibility of something going wrong, and, even worse, that it might be my fault. So I made a decision early on that the best way to avoid any danger of this happening was to do everything correctly and not make any mistakes.
My main goal at that young age was just to get through life unnoticed, and doing things wrong was a sure-fire way to attract unwanted attention from parents, teachers, and other kids. So being perfect established itself as one of the key foundations in my young mind’s survival strategy for navigating a confusing and complex social world. I learnt to work hard and do well at school, always cautious to make sure my homework was in on time. I learnt to keep quiet and not make a fuss. I learnt to keep my feelings to myself and to accommodate the needs of other people above my own so as to avoid coming into conflict with anyone. I also learnt to engage in intense internal criticism to try and control my unruly, error-prone mind.
And so I developed what in Transactional Analysis terms is called a ‘Be Perfect’ driver. A driver is a largely unconscious mechanism that comes online in times of stress as a way to keep us safe. The other types of driver include ‘Try Hard’, ‘Please Others’, ‘Be Strong’, and ‘Hurry Up’. These all represent hard-wired patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaviour that we develop and fine-tune over the years of our psychological development to keep the wolf at the door; ‘Things will be OK as long as I (insert relevant driver here)’. They also represent conditions we place on our self-value; ‘I’m OK as long as I…….’.
The theory goes that we develop these as children in an attempt to create a usable psychological map for the chaotic and complex terrain of social life that we’re thrown into. They act as protection against the potentially overwhelming amount of information we have to process regarding how we should act in the world. But as with any attempt to reduce the infinite complexity of being human into a simple set of rules, it can create more problems than it solves (cutting off one hydra-head only to find more appear in its place).
Let’s take ‘Be Perfect’ as an example. The obvious problem with this is that it’s impossible to achieve. We will always fall short of the ideal model of ourselves we hold in our heads, because in reality we are incredibly complex beings who maintain a remarkably small amount of conscious control over our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The unpredictable mess of neurons and body parts that constitute 'us' are always doing things we’d rather they didn’t, spewing out unwanted thoughts and all kinds of irritatingly painful and confusing feelings that influence our behaviour in ways we struggle to fully understand or control.
This can lead us to attack ourselves, and try to forcibly shut down unwanted thoughts and emotions. For example, I still have real difficulty feeling and expressing anger, because in my simple ideal self-model that I created as a child I am not an angry person. However, the shutting down of this very natural human emotion is actually very disabling when trying to negotiate appropriate boundaries in relationship with others, or if I need stand up for myself in the face of unjust treatment or bullying.
Another disabling feature of the drive to ‘Be Perfect’ is the fear of criticism. The fear of being seen to do something wrong in the eyes of others makes me extremely sensitive to any negative feedback, and acts to dampen my enthusiasm to go out and engage in the world. As David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying, ‘If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything’ .
As an antidote to these problems, I’ve developed a new affirmation which I write down and repeat to myself at the end of each day; ‘I’m not perfect, and that’s OK’. As I write it and read it back to myself, I experience a deep sense of relief. I’m reminded of the need for compassion for our flaws and imperfections, and for acceptance of ourselves as the uniquely complex beings that we are, with all our strengths and weaknesses. So I invite you to repeat this simple phrase to yourself, and see how it makes you feel. If it feels difficult, or alternatively incredibly relieving, then you may have a ‘Be Perfect’ driver to, and maybe it’s time to give yourself a break.