Refelctions by Mario Dylan Santamaria

October 1, 2009


      Some thoughts on Perfectionism, Procrastination and Clutter

As practitioners, we are ever open to patterns as they emerge in the consultation room. Some of these we tend to put upon the patient, much like patterns of dress. And, just as it is with any designer, the theoretical bias, training perspectives and personal drama of the therapist will likely decide how the patient is “put together.” We call this counter-transference. One of the most worthy qualities a psychotherapist can cultivate is the ability to experience the man or woman who comes for help in a fresh and disinterested manner, to listen, to feel and to let that universe of a person into the therapist’s mind and heart. Of course this is an impossible task, and yet a valuable ideal. Over the decades we have learned that we can, with earnestness, insight, empathy and a bit of humor, use our imperfect selves as instruments that – when we are at our best – can resonate most creatively with our patients.

While we are committed to focus on the individual before us, patterns do tend to appear not just in individual cases but over the days and years of our work with many, many patients, however disparate these people may be. And we are wise to recognize them. I call these patterns Clusters, which I tend to see much like abstract paintings that are powerful and original, each its own gestalt of color, form, line, texture and material. One of these clusters which I would like to discuss today is the coming together of three behavioral phenomena: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Clutter (PPC). These three are, in the lexicon of psychotherapy, regarded as pathological. Each is seen as problematic and marked by excess. Otherwise, taking it lightly and using nicer terms, we can see nothing wrong with the pursuit of excellence, patient waiting for the right moment, and the homey gathering of one’s wits, possessions and ideas. Obviously it is excess with its typical disturbance of balance that mark these as pathological. The first becomes a painful and punitive obsession, the second, a stunning paralysis of healthy movement, and the last, a nightmare of glut.

But beyond excess is intent. Perfectionism is no longer the human desire for constructive achievement, it is the fearful need to avoid any blemish of failure. It is less a concern with accomplishment and more a strained avoidance of demerit. “You got a ninety-five on your test, I see. Well? What happened to the other five points?” The beauty of success is maimed by the terror of failure, and so the yin and yang of every experience is skewed out of balance. The result is fear, discontent and depression. With procrastination we work very hard at not working, and we punish ourselves for this as well. We have rebelled against the normal pace of doing things and give a thousand reasons for it, none of which are valid. We simply won’t abide by a contract we have made with ourselves. We maintain an inimical internal split and the battle enervates us. Likewise, clutter is not just a matter of excess, it is the distortion of form by compacting things, ideas and feelings, and hence can be just as paralyzing as procrastination. Order, priority, value all tend to get lost in a muddle of superfluity. And what is the result of all this? It is the sad and wasteful curtailment of our freedom.

All of this is well known to therapists as well as thinking people everywhere. The literature is replete with reference to these three, especially in the theory and clinical research of OCD. But why do we often see them together, as an unholy triangle of sorts? Certainly, we can observe any of them alone and not necessarily fused with the others. Life is wonderfully messy, and so the permutations and combinations with any phenomena appear infinite. But not really. Again and again we see these clusters emerge. But they are not always obvious. Sometimes the perfectionism is denied or buttressed with a prideful self-chiding. Procrastination can be subtle, supported by lapses in memory, convenient mistakes and successful rationalizations. Clutter may not be apparent or may even be materially absent, yet foaming over verbally, cognitively or affectively.

But beyond excess, beyond the motive, there is also a certain linkage wherein each may be a template for the other. Fear of public speaking and writing block are two phenomena which are infused with various clusters, the one most predominant being P.P.C. I conduct workshops in both problem areas and have seen again and again the often hidden fantasy of “knocking them dead” with an Oscar winning performance or a Nobel winning work. Let’s face it, Winston Churchill and Dostoevsky are tough acts to follow. The avoidance, perseveration of detail, excessive preparation and the clutter of thoughts, images, ideas, means of delivery, and just how many ways one will screw things up are all part of a family of energy depleting inter-dynamics. In short, the perfectionism is unforgiving, the procrastination serves to feverishly avoid the “axe” of disappointing failure and clutter freezes movement just as a highway accident turns a thoroughfare into a parking lot. And once again we see the cramping of our lives, the compromise of true achievement and the diminution of our freedom.

Such a cluster lends itself to both psychodynamic and behavioral considerations. Certainly the psychoanalytic approach can and does open rich veins of insight into this neurotic pattern. And it has enabled therapist and patient to expand the choices which hitherto unconscious forces have kept in a stranglehold. But so also have cognitive-behavioral work with many useful exercises that enable patients to prioritize, re-order, and harmonize their behavior. Many therapists, and I am one, find themselves straddling “both horses.” While there is no time here to review technical matters, I do find, after decades of struggling with the problem that less is more. What I mean is that each of these irritating human woes, Perfectionism, Procrastination and Clutter and, worse, their peculiar interconnection involves not merely excess, intent and toxic kinship, but paralyzing intensity. It is energy not so much wasted as it is directed in a systemic way around that powerful gestalt that we recognize now as a syndrome. It has a life of its own, this neurotic presence. One can live with it, and many do, but at a heavy price. And is it not our job to interfere, as it were, to throw a monkey wrench into gas-guzzling engine of self defeat? I find that image less than helpful. Rather, I find that the best clinical strategy is more Zen than intervention. And the patient participates in this strategy. Sometimes it is much harder to let something happen than to make it happen. Harder, but much more rewarding. Perfectionism by its very nature cannot do this. Procrastination is much too busy working at avoidance. Clutter drags you as close as it can toward absolute zero where all molecular movement comes to a halt. They are all vigorously sapping energy to feed the PPC beast. One can tire just thinking about it.

I won’t tell you of a grand method or ingenious intervention here. But I will tell you a story that, I think, might illustrate the human dimensions of this syndrome and the possibilities of transcending it. And it is not from a clinicaI setting. Years ago I was watching an important college basketball game in the NCAA tournament which would lead to a national championship. It was the end of the game and there was no time left on the clock. But a foul had been committed and the team that was one point behind would be allowed two foul shots. If the shooter got them both in, his team would win. If he scored only one, the game would go into overtime. If he missed both, they would lose. Over the next few minutes I saw a most dramatic example of the PPC cluster in all its inglorious vigor.

First came the procrastination, forced upon the boy who was to stand at the line, the one who would bear a most incredible pressure. Before the referee could give him the ball, the other team called a time out, a tactic called “freezing.” It is designed to make the player on the line “think about it,” i.e. to break his stride, delay his action, blur his focus, and have him agonize over the gravity of the moment. I watched him and his teammates and their coach as they went through the formalities of encouragement and solidarity. It was a tortuous hiatus and it was meant to be. Months and years of devoted training, discipline, mantras and rituals were converging at this moment in time. It was the culmination, and hopefully the ecstacy that perfection promised. All other teams were losers. Only one could be champion. I watched the face of the boy who was to shoot. Sweaty, alert, but almost grave in his steadfastness, he revealed nothing of his feelings. If he succeeded, he would be a hero; if he failed he would be the goat.

Then to the line. The ref handed him the ball. Then clutter showed its ugly face. As if the conglomeration of thoughts and feelings within the boy weren’t enough, the crowd was screaming, some imploring him to succeed, others exhorting him to fail. The final touch was the now traditional waving of large, luminous plastic objects to create a crazy quilt of activity behind the basket to distract the boy with the world on his shoulders. And now the moment stretched in time. Seconds became minutes and everyone believed that the memory of this moment would live on when all else was forgotten.

Then it happened. I saw something I never saw before or since. Not at that level of heightened competition. It was the boy at the line. At first he did exactly what every other boy had always done. He breathed deeply, looked at the ball and the basket, bounced the ball a few time as if to get back in stride. But then it all changed, first in his eyes, then throughout his young face. There in the midst of the panoply, under the glaring scrutiny of thousands in the house and millions more on national TV, this kid suddenly erupted with a roar of laughter. I mean a whopping, shoulder shaking guffaw. Could this be what I thought it was? Had he suddenly become aware of the absurdity of it all, the primordial shrieking, the vaulted magnitude and weight of the moment? And what did any of it have to do with a boy throwing a ball through a hoop?

I won’t tell you what transpired. Because it doesn’t matter who won or lost. Instead, I invite you to join me and hold on to that moment, and keep our eyes on the laughing boy, and the freedom that he discovered.