No, I’m not really referring to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m referring to another combination that most everyone, with or without mental health issues, sometimes encounters. I am talking about a pattern of perfectionism, blame, and judgmental thoughts that can either lead to or be the result of emotional and/or psychological distress.
Much like the person who has become accustomed to packing the PB&J sandwich into his lunchbox every day, even though he’d rather have something else, we often carry this pattern with us throughout the day simply because it has become a habit. Just as the daily PB&J has become a harmless defense against mid-day hunger, this pattern of thinking becomes the mindless response to challenges that are encountered during the day, although with more harmful effects on one’s health and well-being.
Unfortunately, I often turn to these traits when feeling fearful, insecure, defensive, stressed, or angry, even when they result in greater distress. Recognizing an increase in this pattern in myself is a good indicator of my emotional state and is often characterized by the following:
Perfectionism: Unrealistic expectations of myself and others leads to a deep sense of dissatisfaction and results in an inability to recognize or appreciate anything positive in my life. It is difficult to make decisions, set goals, and relate to others when the standards are so high that failure is no longer considered an integral part of the process. Failure and adjustment of goals and expectations are a natural part of our existence. I’ve learned that perfectionism results in a rigid point of view that is counter to the definition of success and maintaining healthy relationships with others and myself.
Blame: Often disappointment in myself or those who do not live up to my expectations has led me to look for someone to blame. Usually I am prone to self-blame and berating myself, and I excel at this in most situations. However, more distressing to me is those times when I really do need to take responsibility for my own actions but instead shift the blame to someone else. I can do this with a vengeance at times, usually with those I love the most, backed up by lots of ideas about how I think things “should” be. The end result is a breakdown in communication and lots of hurt feelings, further perpetuating an unhealthy cycle. Without blame, it is much easier to deal with situations in a constructive manner and maintain open, honest communication.
Judgement: Without perfectionism, judgment loses some of its power. On many occasions I have felt justified in passing judgment upon someone else, only to later find myself in the same position. I’ve learned this the hard way on several occasions recently, and it has been a humbling yet enlightening experience.
To suggest that we could ever free ourselves completely from these traits would in and of it self set us up for the kind of perfectionism we are trying to avoid. It may not be realistic to completely give up PB&J, and as with any habit, sometimes the harder we try the harder it is to let go. Instead, it may make more sense to gradually add some healthier alternatives into the lunchbox, until the PB&J has outlived its usefulness.