Recovery Through the Lens of Carl Jung: Perfectionism Doesn’t Make Us Perfect.

My first day of class my second year at UC Santa Cruz came with an overwhelming sense of deep belonging.

At this time last year, I was feeling a severe case of imposter syndrome, and was questioning whether or not I’d landed in the right place in life. My first week of college included accidentally attending the wrong Welcome Week activities, getting locked out of my room multiple times (once right after showering- thank goodness I had a change of clothes with me), getting lost more times than I could ever count, and truly doubting how well I belonged here in Santa Cruz at this time in my life. I had just begun to find my identity as a teacher, and had just released the first-cut trailer of the I Am Maris film. Why, I wondered, was I moving away from all of that?

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Of course, as all things do, everything worked out in the end. Surprisingly enough, I was still a yoga teacher even when I wasn’t centrally located at Just Be, and they didn’t shun me when I returned on breaks and holidays. The film unfolded exactly as it needed to, and is now enjoying the laborious process of being distributed (although luckily with the aid of an incredibly capable distribution team). Nothing, it seems, was absolutely destroyed by the changes that seemed dreadfully extreme at the time.

In fact, as I came to realize but only a few days ago at the time of writing this, the deep feeling of discomfort I felt during this time of change was exactly what would allow me to find that sense of belonging nearly exactly a year later.

Yes, I had never felt a sense of belonging as surprisingly profound as my first day in Psych 80A- Psychology and Religion– at least not since the first day I walked into Just Be. I went in with high expectations. Every person I’d talked to who had taken the class referred to it with a reverence I thought had to be an exaggeration.

It was the best class of my life.

Ralph is just incredible.

Best class ever!

I took this to mean what most college students would take it to mean: minimal homework and a professor that didn’t put you to sleep. And had that been the case, I would have been happy, surely. But I definitely wouldn’t have had what I would eventually come to define as a spiritual experience had that come to be.

That first class began with a question:

Did you have a spiritual experience this summer?

There was a moment of silence in the room as we chewed on what he was asking of us. The person next to me muttered, “Does acid count?” The rest of us seemed to all be trying to seek out a specific answer he was looking for.

Eventually, one person raised their hand and asked, “What do you mean by ‘spiritual experience?'”

The professor chuckled a little and said, “Oh, so you’re one of those smart people.”

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He pushed his glasses back up his nose as the room laughed, sitting back a little in the chair he’d placed on the stage of the lecture hall. He was one of those people who seems to be smiling even when they’re not. He simply exuded an air of friendliness with a twinkle in his eye that said I know something you don’t. 

“I can’t answer that question for you. We’ll get into it eventually. But what does it mean to you?”

A few hands popped up around the room, and he began calling on them one-by-one. Their stories were personal and astounding, each in unique ways. There were stories that dealt with death, loss, and addiction. There were stories that were seemingly small and internal, and others that could have been textbook examples of divine intervention. The professor nodded along with each one, thanking each student for sharing.

“I’m glad you’re here.” He said to one student as she choked up a little while sharing her experience. The room snapped their fingers in agreement.

Throughout all of this, I was sitting with my eyes wide, trying to soak in the experience unfolding before me. These were conversations I’d never had in an academic setting before, conversations that were usually defined as too hokey-pokey and woo-woo for psychology students. There was no way to quantify what the students were sharing, no way to prove that any of it was real. And yet there was a weight to it, a certain welcoming sense of understanding over it all. I’d come to learn later, of course, that this professor was exercising a kind of scientific exploration known as phenomenology, but at the time it reminded me of one word: home.

It felt like Just Be. It felt like anything I said would be valued and understood. It felt like everyone in that room had gone through something like I had, had come to explore the world through tiny inklings of meaning and coincidence as I had. And I felt, above all else, that there was something in that class I was meant to learn. I was meant to be there, and I knew there was something or someone out there that had made sure my butt ended up in that uncomfortable little lecture seat that day.

A few weeks later, I walked into class and was handed a tiny booklet that read “Keirsey-Bates Temperament Test” on the cover. The lecture hall of over 200 people silently got to work on checking boxes next to a seemingly endless list of questions. Each one asked us to weigh certain qualities by their importance to us. Did we value timeliness or spontaneity? Did we like set schedules and deadlines or did we prefer more freedom? Did we tend to speak what first popped into our head or think about it carefully before talking? Finally, we tallied up our scores and were left with four letters meant to categorize our personality.

This test, as I would come to find out, was based of the works of Carl Jung, who studied what could arguably be described as “original” psychology: study of the psyche, the soul. He was more interested in things unquantifiable by science, things like unique experiences, dreams, and lives. The general theory behind the test is that we teeter towards one end of many spectrums to construct our humanness: extroverted or introverted, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving.

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In evaluating my results, I found myself smack dab in the middle of every spectrum except for perceiving, in which case I was undoubtedly a “perceiver.” At first I thought this made me wishy-washy, like my personality was simply too plain to register on the test. In the past, I’d always considered myself to land squarely in rigid categories. I identified as an introvert wholly and completely, thought I was too science-minded to appreciate intuition fully. How could I end up with numbers floating around indecisively in the middle?

But then my professor explained that part of Jung’s theory of human development and spirituality was the processes of moving ourselves closer to the center. In fact, he defined growth as the ability to move into either side of one spectrum nearly effortlessly, and the ultimate challenge of human spirituality to find that ability. The introvert would have to learn to be with others, the sensing type would have to learn to be more intuitive, the thinking type would have to learn to feel more, and vice versa. It was an embrace of fluidity in life and personality instead of praising rigidity in one form or another.

In hearing this, I immediately realized my own spiritual journey, my own recovery journey, could be quantified by Jung’s fascination with the unquantifiable. My life has changed remarkably over the past four years, and although some aspects of that change are easy to pinpoint (I’ve regained xyz pounds in recovery, I’ve included xyz new foods back into my diet after demonizing them, I’ve spent xyz hours in therapy…), there always remains something greater that I’ve struggled to put into words. Something has changed deep inside of me, made me into an entirely new person that ninth-grade Maris would hardly identify as herself.

Before recovery, I would have failed Jung’s test of human growth. I was stuck squarely on either end of every possible spectrum with a rigidity that stifled me, and yet made me feel safe. I was an introvert to the point of isolation, I was a controller to the point of over-analyzing every piece of food that went into my mouth, I was a thinker to the point of anxiety and panic. And it was relentless. There was no switching between categories or an ebb and flow between them. I was stuck. Unmoving. Unchanging.

The perfectionism I felt would make me perfect, I can now see, only held me back from growth. Stepping closer to the other end of any spectrum terrified me with its implications. If I was less of a thinker and more of feeler, I wondered, would I become frivolous and impractical? If I was less of a planner and more spontaneous, wouldn’t my life spiral out of control? I was unchanging and rigid, certainly, but at least it made me feel in charge.

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Part of Jung’s philosophy is that of the horizontal and vertical planes of human existence. The horizontal plane- as my professor described it- is one of zooming. Zooming from birth to school to work to death. Zooming from one checkpoint to another. Zooming from one expectation to another. The horizontal plane can be rewarding, certainly, but in arguably superficial ways. It’s quantified by paychecks and the size of your house and the list of letters after your name. This is the plane that trains us to be perfectionistic, as anxious perfectionists often wins the games the horizontal plane has to offer.

But the plane that Jung was particularly interested is the one that intersections the horizontal: the vertical. This is the one of magic, the one most would dismiss as too hokey-pokey and woo-woo. The one of dreams and near-death experiences and spiritual awakenings. It’s the place we go to when we’re so engrossed in our art or our creativity or our love or our passion that time seems to have no meaning. The space you drop into when you’re alone in nature or meditating or dancing, where hours could pass and you would hardly notice. It’s the space where there is no space for perfectionism or “zooming.”

Yes, the horizontal plane is exactly the kind of thing that makes Jung a very unique kind of psychologist. He didn’t care too much about trying to collect data or scientific proof for the horizontal plane. He cared about how he felt when he got there. He cared about analyzing his dreams and chasing after the things in life that made him forget about time and perfectionism. And he thought that the spiritual journey of becoming more central on the planes of the Keirsey-Bates test would help us find our way to it.

And perhaps, it would seem, that this journey of doing so could be rewarding in ways that the horizontal plane simply can’t offer.

Learning this made me view my recovery in an entirely new way. The change within myself is too hard to squeeze into the confines of the horizontal plane, even if we’re only using it as a descriptor. I have been able to step so far out of the rigidity that used to contain me, have been able to do and see things that I used to simply dismiss as “not for me.” I have started to travel when that used to be an impossibility, have allowed myself to feel with my heart instead of always seeking the “right” answer, have lost the idea of trying to fit perfectly into any kind of box.

Perhaps unintentionally, my recovery was walking along the path Jung describes as the spiritual journey. I was chasing after those things that draw me ever-closer to the vertical. I was chasing after things like art and yoga and writing that suck me away from time and make me feel a connection to something greater than myself. I was seeking the things that allow me to become more fluid, less tied to my own rigidity.

I had learned, along the way, perhaps the single greatest lesson to define my recovery:

Perfectionism doesn’t make us wholly perfect. It makes us perpetually empty.

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Photos by Roberto Martinez, share with love.

 

 

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