Practically Perfect in Every Way–Except Disability: Disability World’s Contributions to Perfectionism

Hello readers,

As we have discussed before, the world of disability as most people know it–the world of diagnoses, therapies, “special places,” “experts,” and so forth, is filled with double standards and paradoxes. Such as, the paradox (def.: something that appears completely incorrect but is actually correct in context) that people with disabilities are often branded stupid–and yet, constantly accused of manipulation. A paradox because, as you’ll see from the archives, one has to be intelligent to manipulate. Well, today, we’re going to be looking at another paradox: disability, and how it contributes to perfectionism.

Why is this a paradox? Because the outdated, but still prevalent, assumption among many in the non-disabled world is that PWDs can’t be perfectionists. There are so many things they can’t do, why would they even try? Let me assure you: they do try, and there are perfectionists with disabilities out there. It probably won’t surprise you to know, one such person is your own Independence Chick. Of course, I’ve always known I was a perfectionist. People certainly said it enough, usually with the qualifier that I should “get over that stuff”–I love most of those people to death, but who are they kidding? And even if nobody ever said to me, “You are a perfectionist,” I think I could’ve figured it out. I mean, why else would I have gotten in trouble in kindergarten for ripping up my own picture and calling it ugly during art class? Yes, this actually happened. But I never thought having cerebral palsy had anything to do with it. I bought into a version of that ignorant statement: How could my weaknesses, the things I could not do, the things I despised about myself, lead to a deep desire to be perfect? In fact, I think there are at least two ways this can happen, and they sometimes go hand in hand.

Perfectionism Contributor #1: Guilt

This often occurs when the PWD, usually in childhood or adolescence (i.e., yours truly) recognizes two things. (1) There are things they cannot do, or do well or “correctly,” that other kids at their age and/or level can. (And don’t discount kids with moderate to severe disabilities from this; to do so is to assume they don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t care. Trust me, they might be blind and deaf, literally, but they sure as heck care). (2) There may be, on the other side of that coin, things they can do well, that people actually applaud (I’m not talking about walking, talking, and grooming oneself–although, if that, sadly, is the only thing that person gets credit for, they could become a perfectionist about THAT). Case in point: Just to prove that this is not limited to people with physical disabilities, let’s say that Aaron’s disability is intellectual, mild-moderate. (This places his IQ at about 50-75, for those of you who like numbers). But, Aaron’s pretty darn good at the athletic activities in which he participates, whatever those are, and with whatever modifications he needs. Even if he has been “placed” in a segregated sports environment (AN option, not THE option), he’s still pretty darn good. So, if not encouraged well, what does Aaron learn? That he is valued for physical ability, but also, everybody discounts his ability to use his brain. So he better be one of the best players out there, or maybe people will start saying, “What did you expect from a kid like him, anyhow?”

What does the budding perfectionist also learn at that point? Well, he or she learns what’s on the other side of that coin. As in, and I’ll use my own example this time: maybe, if I get people to focus enough on what I can do well, they’ll “forgive” my disability. This still happens to me, particularly since I’m almost 28 and still quite single. There is a part of me that believes men are not interested because of my CP, and/or they are scared of it. I must therefore prove to them that they’re getting a great deal by dating/courting/marrying an intellectual Christian woman who does her best to live her faith and would treat him like gold, who watches what she eats and makes the effort to dress up for him, so they will “forgive” that one little detail. (And if you’re staring at the screen, jaw nestled on the space bar and calling me blankety-blank nuts, fine. I know it’s blankety-blank nuts. But there it is. And if it’s happened to me, you can bet it happens to other PWDs, whether or not the opposite sex is involved. I mean, how many stories have you heard where, say, a kid with a disability grew up feeling like a disappointment to his or her parents because he or she never walked, talked, etc., “right?”)

Perfectionism Contributor #2: Constant Correction

I’m not necessarily talking about criticism here. This is the part where we talk about therapy, doctor’s appointments, and their ilk. I want to go on record, again, as saying that some, if not most, therapists, doctors, and their ilk are compassionate people who truly want the best for the people they serve (as screwed up as disability services of all kinds are in this country, but that’s a separate issue). So, back to the actual topic. I’m going to use my own example again, and invoke my interest in personality/psychology.

With my deep, abiding interest in the above came an interest in birth order. Of course, I knew the “basics”–you know, that firstborns are allegedly bossy, youngest kids are allegedly charmers who could get away with murder, and middle kids get lost in the shuffle if Mom and Dad aren’t careful. But if you’re like me, when you love a topic, you want to know more than the basics. So I went out and bought The Birth Order Book, by Dr. Kevin Leman, a Christian psychologist who has written several books (bestsellers, no less), despite the fact that he pretty much blew off school for most of his life. (He blames this partially on his psychological makeup as a baby of the family. I’m a firstborn, so let me tell you–reading about some of the stuff he pulled made me laugh, but it also made me cringe. I don’t need to tell you what would’ve happened to me had I dared stick a toe over that line. That being said, if you ever meet this guy, ask him about the time he conducted target practice on the family Christmas tree. I’m laughing just thinking about it).

Ahem.

So I’m reading Dr. Leman’s book, paying particular attention to the section on firstborns (and only children. Turns out according to Dr. L, I have several “only” traits, too). I’m nodding my way along, and then I come to the chapter on perfectionism. I quit reading for a little while, because I thought, “Great, another guy who has me pegged and will give me 5-10 suggestions to ‘get over it,’ none of which will work because I’ve got the perfectionist role good and broken in right now, and believe me, I’ve tried buying a pair of new shoes, so to speak.”

But being the orderly woman I usually am, I didn’t want to skip parts, so I read the perfectionism stuff anyway. And I came to Dr. Leman’s discussion of the “discouraged perfectionist.” That’s his phrase for what happens when, say, you’re a perfectionist, but you’re also the messiest person alive, or you’re always late. What gives? Well, what gives is, you’re still a perfectionist. You just got weather-beaten and quit trying. And as I was reading this, I had two thoughts. The first was kind of a back burner thing: Oh, so THAT’s why my desk was always a holy mess in school. But the second was like the proverbial firework: THAT’S where CP fits in! Well, hallelujah, I finally figured it out! And since this has happened to me, let me spell it out for you.

A person with a disability can become a perfectionist; it doesn’t matter what his or her medical diagnosis is. Family placement has a lot to do with this, so if you’re reading this and have an only child, or a firstborn, who also has a disability, listen up–but parents of Y’s (youngests) or M’s (middles) with disabilities, don’t quit on me. Say you already have a kid blooming into a perfectionist. That kid is already concerned with doing everything right, pleasing Mom and Dad, and so on. That kid, according to Dr. Leman, also spends a lot of time saying to herself, “I should…” and doesn’t really need or want to hear it from outside sources. (Note that disciplinary needs are somewhat different, but be aware of this). But, but, but.

I’ll use my own example, but a different name. Say that little five-year-old Demitria is already a perfectionist, but she’s also got CP. She works hard to keep everything “right” in her world. She even works on those goals therapists give Mommy and Daddy to take home and help her practice. But then she goes to therapy, and what does she hear? Right: “You should walk this way, not that way.” “You shouldn’t sit like that.” “Don’t type with two fingers; you should use your whole hand.”

Is it any wonder Demi is five years old and on the fast track to a heart attack? Why are we doing that to anyone with a disability, but particularly those who already have perfectionism going strong? And then what do we do? We turn around and, out of the other sides of our mouths, tell that person with a disability that imperfection is okay. Okay, O Great One, then why are you “shoulding” me to death??????

Perfectionism isn’t healthy for anybody, and believe me when I tell you, if there was a pill for it, I’d have bought stock back in 1995, before I was old enough to play the market. But since there’s not: I think the best way to help a perfectionist is, stop expecting perfection. And please, for the love of all that is good, stop forcing perfection down the throats of PWDs (as in, “Be normal (read: perfect) or you’re somehow less.”

A world where imperfections–ALL imperfections–are accepted? Sounds perfect to me.

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