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Our Perfectionism Problem

How Psychoanalysis Can Help Us Heal Our Polarizing Divisions

     We have a bit of a perfectionism problem on our college campuses and in our country today. People are either completely right or totally wrong, and if they don’t conform to this or that view, individuals will find a chorus of others online or in person to support a damning and polarizing stance. While they won’t be tarred and feathered, as Jon Ronson in his recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed points out, they will be humiliated, fired, or dehumanized—and quickly! It’s sophomoric yes, but unfortunately it’s become part of the new normal. Contrast this to the imperfect reality, that most of us, even the well meaning and informed, are partly right, partly wrong, and partly talking about different issues altogether.

   Psychologically speaking, many of the polarizing issues on campus, in politics, and in business right now are so combustible because they hit on profound issues of identity and meaning, and thereby activate the understandably human places of individual and collective trauma. There is no simple way to disentangle these areas which is why it can become so tricky and challenging to maintain reasonable discourse about them.

     In relational psychoanalysis we call these potential fault-lines enactments. More than a virtual reenactment of traumatic issues, enactments are unconscious and unformulated ways of embodying traumatic material with the hope for new potential, however because of their radioactive potential, they often lead to a place that like Voldemort, shall not be named.

   Whether it is at; Evergreen State, Google, or in the political sphere; on Twitter, facebook, in person, or in protest, these issues get enacted in ways that serve to only reinforce the traumatic fear and hope. They do not, as we do in therapy, become reparative nor do they become a place where empathy and connection occur because something new, a third option, does not occur. Whether it is the lack of compromise on a political bill, a discussion over a dramatically publicized and political view on campus, or on the ground in friendships, relationships and classroom discussions, the creative moment is missed.

     Both Democrats and Republicans, in their extreme stances, are also guilty of perfectionism. Without moderation, for example, Democrats become perfectionists of the future, trumpeting a Utopian idealism that can only see the country as its perfect vision of itself, with little tolerance for the complicated and problematic realities of a work in progress and of limited actors who have their biases and flaws. On the other side, Republicans without a tempered vision become wedded to a perfectionism of the past, viewing the world through a nostalgic realism that views the past as the one and only ideal place. They also seem to have limited tolerance for those who have not found a way to make their dreams a reality now, minimizing other people’s limitations as well.

     When it comes to extreme stances, we also need to remember there is a fine but important line between hate speech, intimidation, and violence, as the events of Charlottesville reminded us so dramatically. We need to be very clear about where that is and how to guard against it, remembering Carl Jung’s wisdom from the horrors of the early 20th century, that when the shadow side is disowned and projected on to a group, evil and chaos ensue. We also need to keep in perspective that it is very easy for any and all of us to be susceptible to this shadow side if we are not doing the conscious work to truly reflect, listen, and open our minds and hearts, especially to those with whom we disagree. Put simply, we’d all do better to listen for hurt, rather than hate!

     The problem is our gladiatorial and vitriolic mode of shaming and beating our foes and the ‘gueurrila justice’ that we deludedly think will bring us together never does in fact work—it can’t because it is not coming from a place of true relating, empathy, and most importantly, imperfect limitations. Until we start looking at these issues through a more nuanced and psychological prism on both sides of the aisle and on both political spectrums on campus, we will be imprisoning ourselves and each other in a traumatizing narrative, rather than an imperfect creative opportunity for new possibilities. 

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