Seeking Perfection, Evading Happiness
Author: Lisa Bischoff
I miss Anthony Bourdain.
I’m sure we all do, all of us who read his books, cooked using his recipes, and followed his globe-trotting escapades, those insightful journeys into the hearts and stomachs of people in far-flung places. His insights were unique. They were told in a way that let us, the readers and viewers, get a pure sense of where these people were from, how they lived and worked, and the struggles they faced. And always, his commentary was punctuated by tantalizing details about what was for dinner and how it all came together.
Now just past the two-year anniversary of his death by apparent suicide, I think about the facts that were disseminated by the media around that event. And it reminds me of the loss I felt then and still feel. But what I miss most of all was knowing that someone was out there, in those distant places, enjoying cuisines that most of us had never, and will never, attempt to try, and taking part in random adventures along the way. Bourdain shared it all with his viewers, and his readers. Through his efforts, we learned how much we have in common with each other as fellow humans, and how race, creed, age, religion, sexual orientation, and geography have no part in that equation. We gained a true, compelling sense, through his work, of the term ‘humankind.’
The fact that Bourdain chose to walk away, abandon everyone and everything in his life leaves me, and so many others, perplexed. He had taken us along on so many adventures over the years. And what about his wealth, his celebrity status? Evidently, the sum total wasn’t enough. He chose to end the journey. What the vast majority of his fans would deem enough, or arguably, more than enough to make us deliriously happy in life, was in his mind, not worthy of clinging to.
That there is a straight line leading from depression to suicide is not a new concept. But, according to a study published in The Independent online, in the US alone, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among adolescents. And what drives it, what feeds the beast, is something that many of us are familiar with. Ironically, we often think of the trait favourably, as a badge of honour. But, according to leading psychologists, it is just that kind of wrong thinking that makes it so insidious.
Scratch the surface of the torment that often ends in suicide and you get this familiar word — perfectionism.
Some long-term studies by the World Health Organization, and published in The Harvard Business Review, have suggested that the incidence of perfectionism is becoming more common, especially among millennials. In other words, it very often rears its ugly head at a young age, commonly manifests itself in many self-destructive behaviors, and if left
unchecked, can lead down the path of no return.
Anthony Bourdain had spent a lot of his youth as a chef, working his way up from the lowly position of dishwasher. In his youth, he partied like a rock ‘n roll star, did drugs, was homeless for a time, spent all he had, fell into a slump. Then when he cleaned up his act, and got his love life, work life, and finances in order, things turned around for him. He wrote a few books, then an article which became the breakthrough best-seller Kitchen Confidential. Suddenly, his life was jetset, involving platters of warthog in Namibia, iguana tamales in Mexico, fermented shark in Iceland, and noodle soup with Barack Obama in Hanoi.
But this is where public perception diverged from reality. He had become very diligent, often writing early in the mornings, all the while orchestrating the machinations of a busy New York City restaurant, 12 hours a day. He went on to host a few very popular TV series, focussing on travel and food. He won awards. By all accounts, Anthony Bourdain was a highly-respected and popular celebrity. And he was hiding a dark secret.
Was it perfectionism? It’s unclear. Likely, no one knows, unequivocally, the reason why he was haunted by an internal demon strong enough to wrestle from him his desire to keep exploring, keep living altogether.
Here is a chilling statistic, according to the results of a meta-analysis reported on the BBC Future site: Increasing numbers of young people in the US, UK and Canada are taking their own lives. This can quite easily suggest that the act of trading authenticity for approval is not working. Social media is doubtless a culprit. We can all position ourselves as the heroes and
heroines of our own lives through sites like facebook or instagram. What is actually mundane in our lives can become, with just the right photos, emojis and a splash of punchy words, infinitely more stylish, cool, envy-inducing. It is deemed by many as the quickest route to the fulfillment of an impossible goal: the belief that perfection is attainable.
But now our world has changed, irrevocably, in many respects. The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated brave and seemingly impossible feats from everyone whose job it is to care for others — be those others family members, healthcare patients, the
homeless, refugees, victimized individuals, or simply neighbours and friends in particular need at this time of financial and societal upheaval.
A University of Toronto study, conducted by the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, found that female health-care workers, comprising a staggering 80 percent of the health workforce in this country, have been suffering a great deal since this virus started infecting Canadians last Spring. And depression has played a major role in this equation. They found that the pandemic has caused, “…a number of serious negative health outcomes for women, specifically younger and mid-career women, triggered by a variety of individual, organizational, and systems-level factors,” according to Abi Sriharan, an assistant professor at the university.
The fact that these feelings of depression can and do lead to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts should not be a surprise to anyone. But it all hits so much closer to home when we realize that women at large, due to their primary roles as caregivers,
have been radically affected, not only economically, but socially and psychologically, by COVID-19. Having to carry the weight of the often overwhelming burdens now placed on the shoulders of women, many of whom have had to assume multiple roles at once, may be the one uncomfortable topic that we all need to focus on right now.
As much as pandemic defence measures, like keeping a safe distance from those outside our bubbles, wearing masks in public, and sanitizing our hands, are vitally important to maintaining public health, so too are mental health concerns. When a woman has to take on the tasks associated with being an employee, a spouse, a parent, a daycare worker, a teacher, and a caregiver to elderly parents, the emotional and psychological repercussions can be debilitating and carry negative knock-on effects on all other aspects of that woman’s life. When women suffer, so do the rest of us.
A harsh societal reality leads to the suffering: women are too often expected to assume the role of primary caregivers within the family structure. The added expectation that they fulfill this function well, even uncomplainingly, leads to the perfectionist trap. Trying to do it all can lead to feelings of wanting to escape from it all.
Perfectionists hold irrational ideals for themselves, creating unrealistic expectations for achievement in all facets of their lives — at home with their families, at school and work, in how they should look, in what they should own. They chase the impossible to the point of becoming obsessed with validation by others through demonstration of flawless performance. Anything, any behaviour, any outcome that falls short of this unattainable dream triggers considerable anxiety, shame and even guilt.
Psychologists characterize perfectionism as the gap between how a person is and how he or she would like to be. When expectation fails to match reality, over time, a perfectionist becomes suicidal. The gap has widened to the size of a crater into which the person falls and can’t crawl out.
While it remains shrouded in a fog of unanswered questions why Bourdain, or Kate Spade, or so many other beloved and influential people who seemingly ‘had it all’ took their own lives, the facts we do know should nonetheless give us pause. Being less critical and more compassionate about the people we are, and more accepting of the individual gifts we can offer the world, would be a good place to start. And, of course, there is an ongoing and urgent need to focus more precisely on the root causes of suicide.
With this global pandemic still very much headline news, its associated mental health issues are not going away any time soon. The faster they are demystified, the better we will be able to tackle them effectively. Anthony Bourdain would approve.