THE BLOG
01/12/2011 09:28 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Black Swan and the Harm in Perfectionism

In the film Black Swan, Natalie Portman gives a stunning portrayal of an emerging female battling the developmental forces of innocence and rebellion. Portman's character, a ballerina in the New York City Ballet, demonstrates not just the pressures of being a ballerina, but how the pulls to act restrictive and indulgent permeate self development, especially during the tender years of young adulthood.

At its heart, Black Swan is a psychological story about a daughter imprisoned by the defense mechanisms used to cope with her mother's narcissism. Faced with a mother who invades her personal space and dominates her emotional life, Portman's character, Nina, turns to "being the best," as a means of surviving. In Nina's case "the best" is symbolized by her star role in the ballet.

Having grown up with a mother who never allowed her the safety of speaking her mind, Nina demonstrates what happens when one is robbed of a sense of self-worth. She, like others who feel the need to defer to the dictates of their mother (or father), adapted to a core belief that suggests "what I feel or think doesn't matter; what's important is what will please my mother." In seeking out ways to give one's parent what they emotionally demand, a daughter (it could also be the same for a son) acts instinctively to calm her mother down and reduce the level of conflict, thus alleviating her own anxiety. Over time, angst and worry grow, as does a pervasive sense that "I'll never be good enough."

Seeking perfectionism is a common path for daughters in these complicated family situations. In the short-term, adoration from others may, in fact, offer relief from the emptiness felt within. It may also allow for a sense of living as though "all is fine," when in fact it isn't. But as Black Swan shows, perfectionism as a route to the promised land doesn't work for the long-term. Eventually it leads to a darkness and recklessness within, that may threaten to destroy relationships, the body and ultimately, one's life.

As we begin this new year, let's take a lesson from this psychological thriller. Become mindful of those ways that perfectionism flirts with you and say no to its seductive nature. Recognize how you adapted to childhood circumstances and support your courage for learning new ways to cope. Be aware of and challenge the cultural messages that harm you in order to embrace the ones that heal and sustain.

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