Musturbation: the irrational demand for perfection

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Do you sometimes feel like you must achieve demanding goals in order to be happy and successful? That you must deliver the best work or get the best grades; that you must educate the most well-behaved children; that you must follow the perfect diet or exercise routine? Anything but perfection is not good enough. Well, psychologists have a word for that feeling: they call it musturbation.

The American Psychological Association defines musturbation as “the belief by some individuals that they must absolutely meet often perfectionist goals in order to achieve success, approval, or comfort,” adding that “cognitive and behavioral therapies may be useful in bringing awareness and perspective to such maladaptive cognitions.”

Definition of musturbation

Late psychologist Albert Ellis coined the term to describe “irrational demandingness”—when, instead of strongly wanting to achieve a goal, we demand to achieve it. People who experience musturbation “insist on making grandiose demands on themselves, on others, and on life conditions.”

This irrational and demanding voice in our head can obscure our decision-making process by preventing us from considering alternative options. It may also hamper our ability to adjust our goals as we go. Resources and objectives can change; sticking to “must” might dissuade you to “explore”, and “question” the best way forward.

The symptoms of musturbation

Musturbation is feeling like you must strive for absolute perfection, or that things must happen in the exact way you want them to. In the words of Dr Albert Ellis: “Individuals start with a reasonable desire such as, I would very much like to perform well and be approved by significant others—and then anti-empirically and illogically command, Therefore, I absolutely have to perform well and be approved! They thereby often make themselves anxious when they may not achieve what they presumably must and depressed when they don’t get their command fulfilled. Second, they frequently insist, Other people absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly! and enrage themselves when others do not behave as they dictate. Third, they demand, My environment absolutely must give me what I really want and never severely deprive me! and, as we might expect, suffer from low frustration tolerance and depression when conditions are significantly worse than what they decree.”

What happens when we feel like we must be perfect, but unsurprisingly don’t manage to achieve this impossible standard? We become delusional. We find excuses to explain the gap between reality and our irrational expectations. We may even turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Dr Albert Ellis goes onto listing several symptoms of musturbation to watch out for:

  • Self-deception. When there is a gap between the perfect performance we demand from ourselves, and the more nuanced reality—where things don’t always go to plan—we may lie to ourselves to address the cognitive dissonance. For instance: “I heard a colleague say that I did poorly on our last project, but I’m sure I did well” or “I didn’t meet my sales quota, but I deliberately took it easy this month so that some of our weaker sales people could get a better record.”
  • Rationalizing. Another symptom may be to over-rationalize our failures instead of unconditionally accepting them. Sure, you’re not doing great at work, but it’s because you didn’t get the budget you asked for. And, yes, you missed that deadline but it’s because of your colleague who wasn’t responsive enough.
  • Pollyannaism. Pollyanna is the famous character of an eponymous 1913 novel by American author Eleanor H. Porter. The word Pollyanna has become an expression to describe someone who—like the character in the book—has an unfailingly optimistic outlook. You may think: “Yes, I’m currently not performing great at work, but things will get better in the future, and people will come around to appreciating my skills.” Of course, being optimistic is not bad in and of itself, but Pollyannaism is unfounded optimism.
  • Withdrawal. To deal with the gap between your irrational demands and what is actually happening, you may also opt to withdraw completely from the challenge in front of you. This is the coping mechanism where you don’t even try for fear of failing. It may sound contradictory, but if you must aim for the perfect job or nothing, you may end up going for nothing.
  • Distraction. When musturbation makes us feel anxious, we may find an exit door in distracting activities, such as binging TV shows and endlessly scrolling on social media. “I can keep myself so incessantly busy at my hobbies that I won’t have time to worry about getting ahead in my profession,” gives Dr Albert Ellis as an example.
  • Mysticism. Instead of being more reasonable about our goals, musturbation can make us rely on an invisible power to make our demands become true. For example: “I intuitively know that there is a good, central force in the universe that I can find and tap into and that will make me succeed at anything I do.”
  • Alcohol and drugs. Another form of escapism from failing at unrealistic goals, alcohol and drugs are a dangerous coping mechanism which we can fall into when dealing with musturbation. Rather than worry about succeeding at our impossible goals and feeling anxious about it, we numb ourselves to the fear of failing and being rejected.
  • Gaining supporters. When our perfectionist dreams do not come true, we may start surrounding ourselves with people who validate our self-proclaimed choice of not playing the game; we make friends and spend time with colleagues who do not care about success and will think we are a good person for not trying too hard.
  • Desirelessness. “Whenever I strongly desire anything, I tend to make it into a dire need or compulsion—such as the need to succeed at my profession. To give up such self-defeating needs, I’d better give up my desires too, and not strive for anything except tranquillity,” writes Dr Albert Ellis. When we realise our goals are impossible to reach, we may stop desiring them altogether instead of shaping more realistic goals for ourselves.

These symptoms may paint a pretty dire picture of musturbation, but the good news is: it is absolutely possible to deal with it and shift our mindset towards a more realistic outlook on life. Instead of “must”, we can create a world of possibilities for ourselves, where any closed door can direct our attention to another open one.

Five ways to stop musturbating

Dr Albert Ellis devised ten ways to tackle musturbation, which you can find in his seminal paper. Here are five of the most practical ones you can start applying today if you are experiencing musturbation.

  1. Update your language. Instead of saying “I must”, say “I want”, “I will try”, “I would like” or any other term that leaves the door open for serendipity, and the possibility that things may not go to plan. Instead of saying “I need what I want”, think: “I prefer what I want.”
  2. Reframe your perspective. When things don’t go to plan, try to see it as an inconvenience, rather than an awful and permanent outcome. Maybe a project didn’t work out so well, but you can learn from your mistakes and try to do better for the next one. Maybe you got rejected by a prospective customer, but you can improve your future pitches based on their feedback.
  3. Don’t take it personally. If you had a goal and didn’t manage to achieve it, understand that you may have made mistakes, you may have failed, but it doesn’t make you an inadequate, incompetent person. Everyone makes mistakes; it says nothing about you as a person.
  4. Make peace with challenges. Accept that you can’t control everything, and sometimes life will happen. But you can control your reaction to these challenges. It would be hard to say it better than Dr Albert Ellis: “My life will often be full of hassles and troubles. But I can only change what I can change and I can accept—though not like—what I cannot change. Tough shit!” (his exact words)
  5. Adopt a growth mindset. Learn to fail like a scientist. Don’t quit just because it didn’t work out the first, second, or third time. See every single attempt as an experiment you can learn from. You must not succeed, but you can keep on trying. Again, in the words of Dr Albert Ellis: “I can change myself if I think I can. Convincing myself that I can’t change will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Perfectionism can be a source of anxiety and poor decision-making. By making us feel like we “must” achieve perfection or that things “must” happen exactly as we wish, musturbation can have an even worse impact: making us become disengaged, delusional, desireless, and distracted. Luckily, you can apply simple strategies to shift your mindset and embrace failure as an opportunity for personal growth. No, you must not be perfect—but you can chase your dreams and enjoy the inherent uncertainty of life.