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The Dark Side of Enlightenment:
Sadomasochistic Aspects of the Quest for Perfection
Daniel Shaw CSW
January 22, 2000
The problem of pathological perfectionism has its roots in parental failures in managing healthy omnipotence in the developing child. Traumatic misattunement, unresponsiveness and impingement by parents leads to the development of pathological forms of omnipotence, and the child must then seek an antidote to unbearable impotence. This may be externalized, as in cases of spiritual submission to others who are perceived as perfect, or as in the search for the perfect lover, who turns out never to be perfect enough; or internalized, where an internal masochistic slave strives desperately to fulfill insatiable demands for perfection from an internal sadistic master.
Keywords: enlightenment, perfectionism, omnipotence, sadomasochism, spirituality
Ever since Freud presented his ideas about religion (Freud, 1927), his ideas have been somewhat misunderstood. Certainly, by referring to religious feeling as a regressive illusion, rooted in man’s infantile means of securing paternal love and protection through obedience and submission, Freud succeeded, for many, both in demystifying the mystique of religion, and in shocking and appalling the pious and the righteous. Freud’s influence has been such that generations of analysts, believing themselves to be following in his footsteps, responded to religious feeling as a pathological clinical issue, framed in terms of regression to infantilism, obsessional neurosis, and delusion.
Erich Fromm, who was noted, among many other things, for his interest in Zen Buddhism and Chasidism, saw Freud’s views on religion in a different light (Fromm 1950). Sensitive to Freud’s focus on authoritarian aspects of religious institutions, Fromm allied with Freud as a proponent of humanistic values. Fromm notes that in The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927), Freud affirmed the values of brotherly love, truth, reason and freedom, and expressed his fear of the erosion of these values by religious institutions which claimed infallibility and demanded unquestioning and total submission. Freud believed that "religious man" was adopting morals and ethics for negative reasons: to avoid the wrath of an omnipotent deity and His totalitarian institutions, rather than out of a choice made freely. Both man and morality would suffer, Freud thought, man because he would live in virtual slavery, on a false and compliant basis (as Winnicott (1965) would later phrase it), and morality because it would be dependent on man remaining faithful to his deities, which Freud believed to be unlikely, as he believed science would eventually supercede religion.
Loewald (1960), who, unlike Fromm, spoke from within mainstream psychoanalysis back in 1960, anticipated a pendulum swing in the psychoanalytic view of spirituality when he stated that he believed it was "necessary and timely to question the assumption, handed to us from the nineteenth century, that the scientific approach to the world and the self represents a higher and more mature evolutionary stage of man than the religious way of life." Today we have more openly religious analysts and analysands, with spirituality viewed as a rich source of personal meaning, much more than just the "blind denial of death and existential limitations" (Spezzano and Gargiulo, eds., 1997). Spirituality and psychoanalysis are no longer the strange bedfellows they once were, and at the same time, Freud can now be seen not so much as devaluing spirituality per se, but rather as pointing to certain dangerous aspects of authoritarianism and totalitarianism within religious institutions. As Gargiulo and Spezzano point out in the introduction to their book, a collection of essays entitled "Soul on the Couch," many analysts today seek to discover how the discourses of the soul and of the couch might inform each other, rather than be at odds. For Gargiulo, as with Fromm, psychoanalysis "offers the possibility for a spirituality that is humanly possible rather than religiously necessary" (p. 8).
I think Gargiulo hits the nail on the head here. Most of us today, witnesses as we are to the dawning of the age of Aquarius, would balk at the notion of reducing religion to a clinical issue, to be exposed as pathological and then relinquished. But there is, I believe, a dark side to the spirituality that some of our analysands, and some analysts, can get caught up in, and that is what I wish to focus on here. Spirituality that is not humanly possible, but religiously necessary, brings us to the dark side of enlightenment, the sadomasochistic aspects of the quest for perfection.
Let me clarify my use of the words "enlightenment" and "perfect." To be enlightened can simply mean to become wise, but it also means, especially in mystical traditions, east and west, that one has attained ultimate wisdom, the state of permanent oneness with God. The state of enlightenment in this sense refers to spiritual perfection. As for the word perfect, I don't mean it in the sense implied in a phrase like "what a perfect day this has been," which is what I think of as the casual sense of the word. I mean it to suggest absolute, total, immaculate perfection, that which would be ascribed to a Platonic ideal, or to the divine. Normally, we don't expect ourselves, human beings that we are, to attain this kind of ultimate perfection, but rather to be awed and inspired by it, and perhaps humbled. If, however, we are determined to ignore our human limitations, demanding absolute perfection of ourselves, we enter the realm of pathological perfectionism.
Not to say that there is anything wrong with aspiring to high ideals, or taking inspiration from those whom we idealize. I believe, with Kohut (1971, 1977, 1984), in the necessity, throughout the lifespan, for sufficiently idealizable significant others who provide self-object functions for the initial development, and later maintenance, of a cohesive sense of self. There is, however, an important distinction to be made between idealization and idolatry. Idealization that goes well enough functions to build a strong sense of self, and leads to the capacity for effective self-regulation and satisfying interrelatedness and mutuality. Idolatry, the ultimate form of defensive idealization, always implies submission and enslavement to one who dominates, controls, and possesses.
Idolatry and pathological perfectionism can be readily observed in some spiritual paths led by self-proclaimed "fully enlightened," or "perfected" masters, who are worshiped within their communities as perfect, living embodiments of God. This premise, that the master and God are one, sets a standard within the group for spiritual perfection which only the master has achieved. Any and all efforts of the followers must be judged by the standard the master sets. Now if the master happens to be crazy, this leaves things wide open for totalitarianism and all its horrors, which we are all too familiar with in this century, from Hitler to Jones, Koresh, Asahara, ad nauseam. While the master-disciple relationship is integral to many spiritual traditions, and not insignificant in our own profession, I find it useful to bear in mind that the master-slave relationship is a close relative, and that the line between disciple and slave may easily be blurred. (For a complex and illuminating view of the master-slave relationship, I refer the reader to Benjamin, 1988, particularly the chapter entitled "Master and Slave.")
While many participate in master-oriented groups for a wide variety of reasons, striving toward the goal of enlightenment through attachment to a perfected master can be particularly alluring to those seeking a miraculous antidote to intolerable feelings of worthlessness. With these people, when the shame-driven, compensatory need for redemption and salvation (and with it, the hope for relief from shame and suffering) takes the form of an obsessive quest for perfection, it is possible to observe in their attitudes and behavior the workings of an internal masochistic slave, striving desperately to meet insatiable demands for perfection from a sadistic internal master. For them, to be imperfect means to be shamefully bad and defective. Unfortunately, striving for perfection as an attempt to ward off shame only perpetuates, rather than relieves, suffering, for perfection can never be attained.
People with this organizing theme who have gurus, either religious or secular ones, have often found in the guru’s system the perfect hook to hang all this on. These gurus demand obedience, worship and submission, which are all elements of the "purification" process required in order to be deemed worthy of serving the master. Those who get caught up in efforts to meet these demands will find any tendency toward pathological perfectionism greatly exacerbated. Such gurus hold themselves out as an example of a person who has attained perfection, which the follower is led to believe he may eventually expect to attain as well, provided he exhibits sufficient effort and devotion. However, since absolute perfection is in fact humanly impossible to attain, there is no amount of devotion or effort that can ever be sufficient to attain what the master is said to have. The disciple, therefore, always comes up short in this situation, no matter how hard he tries, because the game is rigged. The master dangles the carrot of perfection, but gives only the painful blows of the stick of greater effort, ad infinitum.
At this point I want to take a turn, and emphasize that it is not necessary for a guru or master to be in the picture to observe these dynamics at work, and that the quest for perfection can take various forms, not necessarily related to spirituality. For some, internalized perfectionism takes the place of a guru, for example in the form of striving for ideally selfless moral and spiritual states, states free of all desire and need; or in the form of expectations that one’s every word, thought and deed be flawless, anything less being considered disgrace and failure. Very often, perfection is sought in the person of the perfect lover, in which case the demands and judgements are taken off the self and put on the other. Whatever the context, the quest for absolute perfection is, in my view, a hopeless, self-defeating, essentially sadomasochistic endeavor, as illustrated in the cases of Ted and Frederick.
Ted sits before me, as he has done twice a week for the last 3 years, tense with anger, directed entirely toward himself. Ted has no outer guru, but lives, unbeknownst to himself, under the command of an internal master, by whom he is constantly feeling tortured. He speaks, once again, about how he has failed to live up, completely and immediately, to his expectations of himself to be perfect, and he has been cruelly abusing himself throughout the session, in his usual way, cursing himself as stupid, shallow, and pathetic.
I had often tried, in the past, to point out to Ted his unrelenting, cruel demands of himself, hoping to raise his curiosity about his organizing principles (Stolorow and Atwood, 1992), or what Freud would have called, aptly, his "private religion" (Freud, 1919), which had been almost impossible for him to think about for a long time because he could only get so far as his self-hatred. Benjamin (1988) points out that the "ability to enlist the hope for redemption is the signature of the power that inspires voluntary submission" (p. 5). In Ted’s case, his perceived need for redemption was so great that he lived in voluntary slavery to his own sadistic, insatiably demanding internal master, composed in large part of internalized, dissociated identifications with cruel and hostile aspects of his parents and step-parents. Ted lived in a vicious circle, seeking redemption from his sense of monstrosity through striving for perfection. Inevitably and repeatedly failing to be perfect further confirmed to him his badness and a) intensified his self-flagellating needs for greater efforts, b) deepened his wish for miraculous redemption and salvation, usually in the form of the perfect woman (a secular form of divine intervention), and c) triggered constant renewals of his self-imposed restrictions and punishments. By way of illustration, Ted was drawn to various forms of starving himself, of food, pleasure and relaxation. He also felt compelled to seek out and become helplessly enmeshed in degrading, unsatisfying affairs with tantalizing women, whom he saw simultaneously as both potential saviors for himself, and as objects he could first save, then dominate, possess, control, and grow tired of.
In the session I refer to here, at a particularly intense moment in which Ted was expressing self-hatred and disappointment in himself, I asked,
"Ted, what if you were allowed to just be a person, a typical, average human being, you know, someone who makes mistakes from time to time. What if it were OK to be good enough, and not have to be perfect?" (I was of course thinking of Winnicott’s use of the term "good enough," as in "good enough environment," "good enough mother" (Winnicott, 1955).)
I didn’t expect Ted to react by shaking with rage, and what looked like terror. What came to mind was Dracula (Stoker, 1983), trembling in horror at the sight of the crucifix. Ted was speechless, not responding to my inquiries about his state, just trembling, and eventually, I spoke.
"Ted, you seem horrified. I know it sounds strange, but you are reminding me of Dracula, horrified by the sight of the crucifix. You seem so intensely committed to being a hideous, evil monster, whose only hope for redemption is to strive desperately to be a perfect, pure saint. It’s as though considering being just a regular human being like the rest of us is anathema to you."
This intervention has turned out to be helpful to Ted, somehow jolting his awareness, and from this point, Ted has gradually become able to think about and reflect on his belief in himself as monstrous, his reasons for holding that belief, and his ways of living from that belief.
Frederick presents a variation on the theme. In spite of a mortifying case of teenage acne, Frederick turned out to be an elegant, sophisticated and attractive man, far more so than either his mother or older brother, even though he suffered his brother’s ridicule and his mother’s haughty criticism for most of his life, especially after his father divorced his mother, remarried and moved away when he was 4 years old. Now in his mid 30's, with substantial career achievements and good professional prospects ahead, Frederick dreams of the perfect woman, and goes from affair to affair, some longer than others, with women he inevitably deems unsatisfactory. In Buddhism, which he practices in a school where the master is relatively in the background, Frederick aspires to the state of the Buddha by witnessing his thoughts and feelings, watching them rise up and dissolve, over and over again. What he avoids is holding on to them long enough to gain insight or awareness of their meanings and connections. When the repetition of inexplicably painful feelings of loneliness, guilt, and fear becomes too much for him, he feels hopelessly cursed, damned because of his repulsive acne scars (which in fact are virtually unnoticeable), or else for some unknown sins he cannot name. The perfect woman would put an end to all his suffering, but if he found her, how would he know if someone more perfect weren’t out there somewhere? The answer for Frederick, as he sees it, is that he must accept his cursed fate, always to be painfully alone. Although his love for Buddhist philosophy and practice is quite serious and sincere, he nevertheless, at times, uses Buddhism to avoid knowing the meaning of his anger and pain, and to defensively detach himself from his emotional needs for connection with others. In fantasy, he hopes that if he meditates enough, the mysterious curse that causes his terrible pain will just go away, and never come back.
Aside from their quest for perfection, Ted and Frederick have in common in their histories highly unstable, narcissistic parents, who were both extremely controlling and shaming, as well as neglectful and often grossly unattuned to the emotional needs of their children. Both patients have had great difficulties in thinking about and feeling connected to the traumatic emotional lives they led as children, each almost completely omitting associations to their parents and childhood experiences for the first few years of twice weekly treatment. Instead, they see their suffering and their bad luck as all their own fault.
Balint (1959), in discussing his concept of primary love, provides an important insight that I have found helpful with these patients and others. He states that from the study of regression in the psychoanalytic situation, he observes a fantasy, in all of us, of "a primal harmony, which by right ought to be our due, and which was destroyed either through our own fault, through the machinations of others, or by our cruel fate" (p. 64). I, too, observe this fantasy. Primal harmony, in my view, is simply the experience of having good enough parental love. The primal harmony may or may not have actually existed, but it is longed for. I believe that the power, intensity, and endurance of this longing for the lost or missing primal harmony, and its cost to development, depends on, in Winnicott’s language, the facilitating environment (Winnicott, 1965), how well the environment adapts to the developing child. The more impinging, unresponsive and traumatic the environment is, the less the child is able to develop a sense of potency. When this is the case, ordinary omnipotence (Winnicott, 1959), necessary for the development of the sense of potency, becomes pathological (Alvarez, 1997). Then the parents’ traumatizing behavior is interpreted by the child as caused by his own badness and unworthiness (as in Fairbairn’s (1953) "moral defense"). The child assumes total culpability, an internalized, negative form of omnipotence (see discussion of Wurmser, 1999, below). The parents’ failures become cause for burning shame, brutal self-reproach, and at the same time, there is a sense of being a helpless victim of powers he cannot control. Since the child wishes, due to his dependence, to preserve his parents as good, he comes to see himself not so much as their victim, but rather as a victim of unknown, external forces, Balint’s "cruel Fate;" or, in other words, externalized negative omnipotence.
Fairbairn (1958) would have called this "the closed system," and in this particular kind of system I am describing, Balint’s fantasy becomes a central organizing theme: the child, later the patient, goes from a) experiencing cruelty in the parents, to b) blaming himself for eliciting that cruelty, to c) trying to exonerate the parents via dissociation, to d) the experience of endless obsessional confusion, fear and guilt about whether the badness is his own or his parents’. Because this conflict seems hopelessly unresolvable, life comes to feel like an inexplicable punishment inflicted by an omnipotent, merciless external judge who has control over one’s destiny. It then seems that only a miracle, externalized positive omnipotence, in the form of "kind" fate, could repair the damage and lift the curse.
Here we have pathological omnipotence (which, again, represents a failure on the part of the parents to manage the child’s healthy, normal omnipotence well enough), internalized as self-condemnation, and externalized as a sense of being the victim of cruel and fickle fate, both attitudes representing the search for an antidote to unbearable impotence. (See Fromm, 1941, Chapter 5 (Mechanisms of Escape), for his discussion of masochism and the role of the "magic helper." See also Shaw, 1996 for further discussion of the "magic helper" concept.) In later life, the hallmark of this dilemma will be chronic, agonized longing for perfection, internal and external, in oneself and in others.
Wurmser (1999) sees this "omnipotence of responsibility as defense against utter helplessness." He says:
"Narcissistic fantasies, in general, serve in traumatic situations as protection against helplessness. There exists, however, as a particularly important version of such protective omnipotence, the fantasy, almost delusion, of the absolute, total nature of responsibility, as if to say: ‘If I only would be strong and good enough, all these awful things would not happen. Whatever abuse occurs, it is all my fault.’...
Thus, throughout the material in these patients goes the absoluteness both of their conscience and of their ideal: they themselves must be perfect and behave accordingly; their self-condemnation is correspondingly ‘totalitarian’...
The fantasy of perfection and omnipotence can never be fulfilled. What remains consciously is abysmal shame and guilt. The dynamics of this omnipotence of responsibility, as a protection against traumatic helplessness, and hence the totalitarian sadism of the inner judge need to be put into words, many times, to bring about a gradual relief" (p. 315, italics mine).
As in Wurmser’s formulation, to defend themselves from the impotent rage and helpless despair of fully comprehending the traumatogenic failures of their parents, both Ted and Frederick focus instead on their own shameful failures, holding themselves and others to impossible standards of perfection, punishing themselves with self-contempt while waiting, angrily, for fate to become more kind. The desperate attempt to find control in the midst of helplessness can seemingly be resolved, as Ferenzci pointed out long ago (Ferenzci, 1933), by identifying with the aggressor. Having power, any kind of power, is better than feeling overwhelmed, alone and helpless. Sado-masochistic self-abuse puts the power in one’s own hands, and takes it out of the hands of the original antagonists. To sadistically reproach and punish oneself might be a hellish torment, but at least it is under one’s own control.
Understanding these dynamics will enhance our helpfulness with many patients, but most importantly, as analysts, we hope, optimally, to be able to let our patients use us, and not the other way around. These patients need help finding a way out of their vicious circles, which have been created as a way of protecting themselves from the destructiveness in their early environment. We have to provide the safety and respect in the analytic situation that will embolden them, so that they can use us to envision and realize ways of living in freedom rather than slavery. Since such a life of freedom is virtually unimaginable to them, and would be equivalent to assuming a new identity, this is usually a slow process, fraught with many terrors.
Some of our analysands approach spiritual leaders seeking a safe haven and a new beginning (Balint, 1932), a chance to surrender (Ghent, 1990; Benjamin; Maroda, 1999) their rigidly defended, wounded selves to a transforming, opening, healing other (Bollas, 1987). These hopes are too often responded to with a confusion of tongues (Ferenzci, 1933), a bait and switch maneuver, where instead of finding the longed for facilitation of a safe and transforming surrender, one is met instead with ever-increasing demands for total submission. Sadistic domination is all too easily confused with benign love, of a parent, or an enlightened master, or an analyst, especially when the sadistic domination and the love are both present, whether simultaneously or in alternation.
The informed analyst is in a position to help sort out this confusion. Whether analysands have become enslaved to a private or public philosophy geared towards attaining perfection, or seduced by a guru, or seduced into the servitude of living as a false self in accommodation to narcissistic parents (Winnicott, 1952; Miller, 1981), we as analysts can seek to help patients discover and distinguish what they truly value and desire from what they believe they must submit to and comply with out of fear of punishment.
What punishment is the most dreadful of all? I believe it is the withdrawal of love and human connectedness. Such withdrawal is an immensely powerful weapon in the hands of those who are in a position to dominate and control others. When this withdrawal has been traumatic early in life, as it was for both Ted and Frederick, who stood by helplessly as they saw their families torn apart by divorce, the search for love that will never be withdrawn, for perfect, miraculous love, becomes desperate. For many, and I stress that I am not suggesting for all, the quest for enlightenment and perfection is accompanied by an underlying hopelessness about knowing human love that is good enough, good enough to dispel the curse of aloneness. It expresses a wish to magically avoid or escape agonizing disappointments in people by loving only a person or an ideal that is perceived as perfect, someone or something that seems to offer a guarantee of constant, unconditional love. Such guarantees too often come at the price of endless longing, self-punishment and submission. We can help our patients, rather than to sacrifice themselves at the altar of unattainable perfection, to pursue love, transformation and wisdom that are good enough, and therefore humanly attainable.
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