By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
A perfectionist is someone with extremely low self-esteem who feels that the only way to redeem himself from those horrible feelings of low self-worth is to get things perfect, to have truly amazing accomplishments. Anything less than perfect performance is considered worthless, a failure and shameful. Perfectionism can cause many disorders such as extreme anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as a host of psychosomatic physical health problems.
Is my child a perfectionist?
Perfectionism comes from being raised by loving well-intentioned parents who have unfortunately made some mistakes in child-rearing. The most common such mistakes are over-control, criticism and lack of approval or conditional approval. Chronic criticism devastates a child's self-esteem and makes him feel that he must get things perfect in order to be worthy. In addition he absorbs a message sent directly from his parents: "Only when you get things just right do I approve of you. Only when you do well are you acceptable, worthy and loved." So when considering the question, “Is my child a perfectionist?” we must keep these things in mind.
I wouldn’t ever like to say anything bad about my beloved favorite tennis player!
However his autobiography, Open, presents strong evidence that Andre Agassi was a perfectionist. My only goal is to help parents and children, and I think it will be extremely helpful for parents who wish to raise their children in an emotionally healthy way, to become aware of the mistakes Agassi’s parents made, so that we don’t repeat them. In addition, it is very important for us to learn that even the greatest professional success is not worth it if the person does not possess emotional health!
In his autobiography entitled Open, Agassi lays out very clearly what his life was like. Despite his fame and fortune, he felt that he was living a life of abject misery. He absolutely hated playing tennis. He describes playing tennis as “Torture,” and the court was his prison. His “Punishment” began in his early childhood and never ended until he retired. “No matter how much I want to stop I don't. I keep begging myself to stop, and I keep playing.” (p. 27) He pursued perfect performance in tennis not for the joy of accomplishment and achievement, but only to relieve his terrible feelings of low self-worth, and to counteract judgments of self-criticism. “Though I hate tennis, I like the feeling of hitting a ball dead perfect. It's the only peace. When I do something perfect I enjoy a split-second of sanity and calm.”(p29) Relentless and futile pursuit of such perfection became the goal of his life.
Agassi’s father made several key parenting errors. First of all, he was completely over-controlling. “What are you doing! Stop thinking! No thinking!” (p.31) He never asked the young Andre, “Would you like to play tennis?” He alone decided for his son that his life would be dedicated to tennis. He forced him to play every minute of his childhood, even making him miss school on many occasions for extra practice. He was literally a slave-driving drill sergeant. “I take no pride in my reflexes. I get no credit. It's what I'm supposed to do. Every hit is expected, every miss a crisis.” (p.28) He made it clear to Agassi that none of his wants, needs and desires were important. “What I want isn’t relevant.” (p.29) The only thing that was important was his father's will, his father’s desire that he become a great tennis player. “I don't want to upset my father. I don't dare. Bad stuff happens when my father's upset. If he says I'm going to play tennis, if he says I'm going to be number one in the world, then that's my destiny. All I can do is nod and obey.” His emotional life was completely disregarded. This taught him to repress his emotions, one of the key factors in emotional illness.
The legacy of criticism
In addition, his father constantly, absolutely, criticized him. Every single move Andre made that was even slightly less than perfect was met with a torrent of criticism, disapproval and verbal abuse. He sent a clear message to his son, that he must be perfect and totally successful: otherwise he was worthless. Even when he did play perfectly, his father never praised him or expressed approval. Andre’s only reward for success was a temporary relief from criticism and shame. “I win my first seven tournaments in the 10 and under bracket and my father has no reaction. I’m simply doing what I’m supposed to do.”(p.37) “I've never lost and can't imagine what my father's reaction will be if I do.” (p. 37) Agassi internalized this message and became his own (and harshest) critic: "I will now have a loss on my record forever. Nothing can ever change it. I can't endure the thought, but it's inescapable. I'm fallible, blemished, imperfect. After years of hearing my father rant over my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I have internalized my father, his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage, until his voice doesn't just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me, from this day on I can do it all by myself.” (p. 38) This is the fate of most perfectionists. They become their own harshest critics, leading a life of inescapable agony.
Anger and Shame
Whenever a person hurts someone else, as in the case of the verbal and emotional abuse that Agassi suffered at the hands of his father, the reaction is naturally and automatically anger. Therefore we can likely assume that someone who went through what Agassi did may harbor extreme anger toward his father for the way he treated him. However, he likely never would have been able to express and process his anger as a child, for fear that his father would retaliate against him. Therefore the anger must have been repressed. Leading a life of repressed rage is very unhealthy. It generates many emotional disorders. “I'm furious with Tarango, with God and with myself.” He admits his father’s abusive behavior, “Of course he has no qualms about preying on me.” (p. 30)
The other emotion that perfectionists usually feel is shame. Shame is the king of all unhealthy emotions. After reading Agassi’s autobiography, I feel that it is safe to assume, and necessary for us to recognize, that he was very likely terribly shamed by his father for every one of the many mistakes he made, however small they might have been. He probably internalized those feelings and felt intense shame over every single less-than-perfect performance.
Unfortunately but interestingly, he suffered from intense, debilitating back pain and sciatica. He claims it came from herniated discs and other structural abnormalities, but it may have been that none of those had the power to create the amount of pain he was experiencing. The truth is, from the life history and symptoms he describes, he may well have been suffering from a condition described by Dr. John Sarno, called Tension Myositis Syndrome, where one’s consciousness threatens to be overwhelmed by feelings of shame and low self-worth because of the fear of a less than perfect performance, and one’s mind creates the intense back pain to distract him from his overpowering shame. The pain serves to distract his mind and saves him from what his unconscious fears may be an emotional breakdown. In addition, his repressed rage threatens to burst forth where his mind fears he might do something aggressive, and so It creates the back pain to distract him from his repressed rage and to keep it locked in his unconscious. This condition is very common and affects millions of Americans every day.
I don't know if Agassi ever made it into therapy…
If he did, he would have had to express intense grief over how he was treated by his father, and over his lost childhood. He would have had to take all of that unconscious repressed rage, and express it consciously in therapy, so he can process it and let it fade into the past. He would have to mourn and grieve the fact that he was denied the important gem that every child must have, a feeling of self-determination. It would be very helpful for Agassi to seek an admission from his father that although he made him a great tennis player he destroyed his emotional health and set him up for a life of misery. Such an apology would be extremely valuable as it would shatter his feelings of low self-worth, which are in reality just an illusion. He would have to completely change his thought patterns and value system, recognizing that in life one should be allowed to strive for more mundane, reasonable accomplishments, and not for perfection. He would have to learn the joy of the ordinary.
How can we do differently?
By the way, his father could have turned him into an equally good tennis player, but in a different way. He could have showed him the joy of playing tennis well, the pleasure of the game, to such an extent that he would have been inspired, and would have chosen of his own free will to spend much of his time playing tennis. He could have taught him to see the joy and beauty of winning, and of success, while at the same time not feel any shame or self-criticism at losing or because of a less than perfect performance. There are many successful athletes who have this healthy attitude. Any parent can inspire his child in this way, leading to success in any endeavor, success in the healthy way, and not through criticism, pressure or force.
Agassi is an amazing example of the devastating effects of parental over-control and over-criticism. He is a great lesson for us in how not to treat our children. All the fame and fortune in the world is not worth a life of emotional devastation. In fact, one need not go to the extremes gone to by Agassi’s father to create an unhealthy perfectionist. Even a moderate amount of criticism and mistreatment can do it, and must be avoided like the plague.
Therefore, we need to display an extremely non-critical, non-judgemental, accepting attitude towards children, one of unconditional approval even when they make mistakes. Mistakes should in fact be celebrated for the great learning experience that they are! Good performance should be encouraged by teaching them the joy of doing well, not the shame of making errors. And above all, children need to be treated with extreme gentleness.
For my approach on how to respond when a child makes mistakes, click here.
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, download one of my free reports, or view my video. If you are wondering, “Is my child a perfectionist?” and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in NYC, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute phone consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!