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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Q. I often am overly intense on everything, from making coffee in the morning to completing work assignments. If other people are involved (like my family) I am intense at them as well if things don't go the way I expect them to. At the same time, I am most intense at myself, where I have certain expectations and if I don't meet them I beat myself up about it, sometimes for days. It is causing me to be very moody, on-edge, and I'm losing sleep. It is really starting to bother me, and bother my wife as well. I have a good diet, I excercise regularly. Since I'm writing this, I guess I've decided that it is a problem. What can I do?

A. You've already taken the first step-by recognizing that you have a problem and seeking advice. That's more than millions of people in your situation ever manage! Much of what you describe may have to do with a very common and destructive attitude in Western countries-perfectionism. The author Thornton Wilder once made a very astute comment on this unfortunate habit of mind: "To this day, many an American is breaking his life on an excessive demand for the perfect, the absolute, and the boundless in realms where it is accorded to few-in love and friendship, for example, The doctrines of moderation and the golden mean may have flourished in Rome and in China...but they do not flourish here."

In my book, The Ethics of the Sages, I discuss how several ethical and religious systems deal with perfectionism. In the Talmud, for example, we find a wonderful statement from Rabbi Tarfon: "It is not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it." (Pirke Avot 2:21). The message is: "You don't have to do everything perfectly, but you don't have an excuse to give up either." In Zen Buddhism, we find a wonderful and consoling message that I have taped to my work station: "There is really nothing you must be. And there is nothing you must do. There is really nothing you must have. And there is nothing you must know. There is really nothing you must become. However, it helps to understand that fire burns, and when it rains, the earth gets wet."

I think you will glean the meaning of this without my commenting. So, what can you do? You might want to look into some of the religious/philosophical traditions that I've mentioned, particularly Zen. Or, you may want to take a more secular approach, and begin re-examining the cognitive distortions that may lurk beneath your intensity.

For example, our mood is often influenced by pre-conscious sentences we repeat to ourselves, such as, "If everything isn't just perfect, if I don't handle everything just right, it's the end of the world!" Now, sometimes, this kind of self-defeating thinking can lead to a clinically significant depression. If, for example, in addition to feeling moody and on edge, you are feeling hopeless, helpless, or like not going on with life, I would definitely recommend seeking some professional help. Other signs of depression include a loss of pleasure in most or all activities, waking up early in the morning, a change in appetite or weight, and feelings of self-loathing or intense guilt.

If things have not gone this far with you, you might want to take a look at some excellent books. First on my list is always, "A Guide to Rational Living", by Drs. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper. David Burns's book, "Feeling Good" is also very helpful. You may also want to see "The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook," by Martha Davis PhD and colleagues. This book also has an audiocassette version. You may want to consider joining a meditation or stress-reduction course or group, too. But for my money, the bottom line is changing the underlying assumptions that leave you feeling so intense. If you can't do this on your own, I would recommend getting some counseling. I hope you succeed in this soon, and begin enjoying life again!

April 2001

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