The Imperfect Pursuit of Perfection

Life, it seems, has become an endless pursuit of perfection. The perfect partner, the perfect job, the perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect face. 

Except, of course, it’s never enough. No matter what we achieve, we keep redefining what we mean by perfection. Yet I’d argue that when we define perfection, we’re instead allowing ourselves to be defined by how we want to be seen by others.

This is certainly true of celebrities. The rock stars, film icons and sporting heroes who occupy the unrelenting attention of the world’s media live in a strange and terrifying alternate reality in which they are presented with an image of themselves and experience the suffocating pressure of trying to live up to it.

A life of celebrity can be almost Orwellian, where the definition of self can become so blurred that the person in the spotlight in turn becomes convinced that the image they see on the news, in the papers and on film is actually who they are or should become.

That’s a road fraught with danger, because the sheer pressure of trying to live up to an ideal is so great, so all-consuming that it becomes destructive.

This manifests itself in many different ways – often in acute depression or anxiety or, as we’ve so often seen, in some form of serious addiction.

I could write at length on why celebrities are so prone to becoming lost to themselves to such an extent that their mental health is seriously compromised, but it’s enough to say that the nature of stardom is such that it tends to happen when we are young and unprepared and the industry of stardom often – though not always – isn’t qualified to offer the sort of protection needed.

And when I talk of about the industry of stardom, I’m not referring to the film or music industry or a particular sport (though they certainly play their part), but rather to the amorphous machine that exists to service the uber-famous – the agents, the PR gurus, the security and the seemingly endless hangers-on that make up the entourages of the famously rich.

Like all stress, the pressure of living up to an ideal is enormous and breeds a near-genetic imperative to find a release valve. Addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs, is an apparently attractive escape route because it offers immediate relief from the stress of living under public scrutiny and, by and large, the tools of addiction are relatively easy to come by – particularly when you have people on hand whose job description is focused on meeting your every need.

Consider, also, that a great many of the world’s superstars spend a great deal of time alone. Separated for long periods from friends and family, confined to an endless blur of hotel rooms, dressing rooms or trailers and often befriended by people whose only wish is to live in your reflected glory, being an icon can be a desperately lonely existence.

And because drugs and alcohol give the illusion of washing away the stress or unhappiness or boredom almost in an instant, it’s easy for addiction to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing you invite in.

The equation of addiction is as simply as it is destructive: stress + relief = repetition.

Those who have good people around them probably find it easier to reject the empty solace that addiction provides (though not all of them have escaped, or will escape, its clutches).

There are also those who, like Robert Downey Jr., for example, found a way to beat their addiction and managed – through enormous hard work – to rebuild their careers and lives with a greater sense of perspective.

Yet the world’s graveyards are filled with the headstones of those who were unlucky; the stars who failed to see the monster under their bed until it was far too late: in the relatively recent past addiction has claimed the lives of Prince, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Winehouse, Corey Monteith, Joan Rivers, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger and George Best.

The ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’ is such a cliché yet it perseveres because there is something other-worldly about it. It’s associated with money and the high life and good times. It’s linked to applause and adulation and validation. And we revere our icons because they represent a life we think we want.

Our idols are, to us, the personification of perfection, even though the people we see are merely products we have ourselves manufactured through the prism of the media.

And in that lies a profound irony.

That the perfection celebrities feel bound to project in public masks the greatest imperfection of all: that of their own emotional wellbeing.

Zoe Clews is one of London’s most recommended hypnotherapists and the founder of Zoe Clews & Associates.

Addiction: Rat Park, or rat race?

In the late 1970s Bruce Alexander, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, developed a contentious hypothesis. In a global society which focused entirely on the role drugs played in addiction, Alexander looked instead at a different enemy: the environment.

At the risk of over-simplifying things, he believed drug use – and therefore addiction – was much less likely to be prevalent if people were given alternative choices to make. Unsurprisingly, the science community all but laughed at him.

But Alexander believed he was onto something and to prove it, he developed the Seduction Experiment based in something that came to be known as Rat Park.

Rat Park was a sensory environment 200 times the size of a laboratory rat cage. He filled it with all manner of diversionary objects and gave the rats housed there two water sources: one plain, one heavily laced with morphine.

Then he took four sets of weaned rats aged 22 days. One group lived in rat Park for the 58-day duration of the experiment and another group lived in a standard empty lab cage for the same period. A third group began life in Rat Park and moved to a cage at the age of 65 days while the fourth group started out in a standard cage and moved the opposite way at the same time.

The experiment was complex but, in essence, the rats that lived in the park for the whole period chose plain water over the morphine-laced water whilst the caged rats ultimately chose the morphine. Meanwhile, the morphine-dependant rats that moved from the cages to the park soon chose the plain water over the morphine and the Rat Park rats that moved into the bare cages eventually showed greater inclination to drink the morphine water.

What Alexander proved was that addiction had more to do with the external environment and the internal reaction to it than it did to the addictive substance itself.

The 21st Century version of Rat Park is to be found in America where young addicts are being encouraged to leave the streets and participate in gym programmes. The environment change frees them of addiction because they have something else to focus on. But if the cause of the addiction is not examined and relearnt in a positive way then as soon as the gym programmes stop then there is a high likelihood of relapse.

The key to understanding addiction is understanding your environment in the past, present and future. Take alcoholic addiction, for example, you weren’t born with a bottle of Jack Daniels in your hand, circumstances in your life led your brain to finding comfort and pleasure in the alcohol leading to the addiction taking control. Even though the addiction maybe slowing destroying your life there is often a deep, positive intent to it that needs to be explored and relearnt.

At Zoe Clews & Associates, our success rate in helping people get control of their lives from addiction is something we are extremely proud of. We understand that to overcome addiction you might need support not just from us, but from working in programmes and participating in group work and using us to reinforce the change in internal programming that led to the addiction. We are delighted to work with other therapies and programmes to help you move forward in your life and get back the control, rather than being the one who is controlled.

The way we work is to individually tailor the sessions to your needs and goals and this is achieved by incorporating a number of methodologies to release you from the prison of addiction. Many of our clients who used to have alcohol addictions can now sit happily drinking coffee in a bar with no desire to have an alcoholic drink.

Past events

Our past seriously affects our addictive response. If we grew up watching mum and/or dad having a few too many Martinis in the evening or Mum puffing her way through 20 cigarettes a day then we learn this as appropriate behaviour, so in times of stress the coping mechanism that we reach for is what we learnt from our parents.

And trauma, if not reconciled, leaves an emotional footprint of unmet needs – which in turn can prompt us to try to meet those demands in later life. This, in turn, can fast become an addiction.

So what can we learn?

To successfully treat an addiction permanently you have to turn to the mind and satisfy its unmet need, coping mechanism or learnt behaviour. The problem isn’t the substance, it’s the desire for it, and the methods used at Zoe Clews & Associates effectively deal with that desire so you can regain control over your life. 

Eat Too Much, Drink Too Much, Smoke Too Much?

The subconscious mind can be voracious in it’s appetites with overeating, excessive drinking and an increasing reliance on nicotine being commonplace.

It can be really challenging to control consciously, especially if you’re using these outlets to deal with stress, anxiety or uncomfortable feelings.

How do you know if it’s too much? Well, you may notice what I call the ‘domino’ effect, here’s an example using all three: you get home stressed and wired after working late, the first thing you do is reach for a glass of wine to relax. The glass of wine becomes a bottle as it feels good but you don’t sleep well that night as alcohol affects your sleep. Waking up the next day hungover, perhaps anxious, maybe ‘beating yourself up’, your blood sugar is low so you reach for quick fix food, maybe coffee and nicotine will feature throughout the day just to get you through it. Not great but not a problem if it’s occasionally, however if it becomes a regular habit it starts to seriously affect your health, deplete your emotional and mental wellbeing, leaving you feeling under-resourced and below par.

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You Can Never Get Enough Of What You Don’t Need

I’m talking about how we can use money here. If we have unmet needs on a deeper level, and we don’t acknowledge and identify these, we can walk around with a subtle or not so subtle persistent, feeling of ‘hunger’ or lack of fulfilment which is actually a deeper sense of deprivation. Attempts to fill the hole of deprivation can take many forms such as over-eating, drinking, partying hard and excessive working but one of the most common ways I have seen it play out with clients in my decades practice is financially.

If a sense of inner personal security is what is missing from your life, no amount of internet shopping will make up for that. If you’re craving intimacy excessive gift buying won’t meet that. In a nutshell: if you’re not getting the proper ‘nourishment’ you need from life you can’t make up for that no matter how many hand-bags you binge-buy! You can never get enough of what you don’t need.

There is a big difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, our needs are deeper and are often to do with our growth, our creativity, our path in life and our connection to our ‘self’, our life and others.
You can tell if something is a ‘want’ as it’s usually accompanied by a ‘I must have it right now’ feeling!

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The ‘Control / Release’ Cycle

The control / release cycle is talked about in John Bradshaw’s excellent book ‘Healing The Shame That Binds You’.

The control / release cycle is this: a period of rigid control and boundaries around an area of your life – stringent dieting and exercise for example, followed by a period of release – when you fall into a ‘binge’ pattern: eat all of the foods you forbade yourself in the ‘control’ period and avoid the gym like the plague!

The control / release cycle means you either have total control ‘compulsivity’ or you have no control ‘addiction’, they are interconnected and set each other up as the more intensely you control, the more you require the balance of release and the more you self destructively release (undoing all your hard work) the more intensely you require control and so on.

If there are feelings of low self-esteem, shame and self-punishment from childhood underneath the control / release cycle it seems to intensify both sides of the tension: extreme control followed by extreme release.

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Additional Credits

Video by Weeks360.

Photography by Liz Bishop Photography.

Production by Mark Norman at Little Joe Media and Joanne Brooks.

Hair by Jonny Albutt.

Make up by Olly Fisk and Nabeel Hussain.