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Fleishman is in Trouble, and the perils of perfectionism

Fleishman is in Trouble is a novel (and now a TV series on Disney Plus) that tells the story of a family – the titular Fleishmans – unravelling, and trying to make sense of this slow implosion. We are plunged into their story at 4am on the morning that Rachel Fleishman drops her children Hannah and Solly at the apartment of her recently-ex husband, Toby, and proceeds to disappear. Toby, a 41-year-old hepatology doctor in the midst of trying to construct his post-divorce life, faces suddenly becoming the sole carer for their kids. As an added texture, Toby’s story – and, through it, the stories of Rachel, Hannah and Solly – is narrated through the voice of his old friend Libby, whose own tale of erosion is also knitted into the shadow of Toby’s.


The deftness with which the author paints human experience ensures there are plenty of opportunities to identify aspects of ourselves within the novel's characters. As it is such a mirror, it contains an awful lot of material that could fuel discussions in the therapy room. We could talk about navigating the themes that hum in the background of the characters’ lives, including (online) dating; divorce; parenting; class; money; gender politics; social media; and the perpetual aggravations of smugly-punny ‘athleisure wear’. We might also explore the challenges we share with the characters: navigating relationship dynamics; communication difficulties; societal pressure; ageing; and enduring disappointment, injustice and failure. However, I feel that the novel provides particular insight into a subject that frequently enters my therapy room: perfectionism. All four Fleishmans (and Libby) have their own nuanced and challenging relationship with perfectionism, but I’m going to focus here on what we can learn through Toby's perspective on this topic.


As we will see from Toby's story, perfectionism is often a device we use to counter concerns that our worth or value may be conditional, or that certain aspects of us could be unacceptable or unlovable. To ease these concerns, we invest in creating a persona that we feel more assured will be well-received by those around us, masking the aspects in which we feel less certain. An example of this might be trying to assuage worries that our sexuality might not be accepted by becoming a star pupil at school - concealing something that could risk rejection by amplifying something we know will only receive praise.


Through Libby the narrator, we learn of the influences on Toby's perfectionism: how affected he was by childhood and young adult struggles with his size; how it provoked extensive shame and insecurity for him (‘made him unacceptable in his own eyes’); and how it felt like the cause of several romantic rejections in his youth. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Toby has not managed to process and diminish these feelings, but that he has developed a way to disguise them, and to feel more self-worth via these means: by portraying himself to others as a paragon of virtue and goodness. This is Toby's idea of what constitutes an unassailable 'perfect'. He establishes this ‘perfect’ persona by presenting himself in several admirable roles: as a dedicated and talented doctor, whose primary concern in life is ‘to heal the sick’; as the more emotionally-engaged and compassionate parent (he goes so far as to tell Rachel that she ‘will be the lesser parent to my children for as long as we’re all alive’); and as the wronged party in a marriage to someone who was ‘crazy’ and ‘a monster’. These are all narratives about himself to which he clings, tightly.


In order to maintain these narratives - and that ‘perfect’ image - Toby perpetually works to amplify the ‘virtuous’ aspects of himself, and to deny or ignore thoughts, feelings and actions that don’t fit this picture. Despite Rachel’s accounts of Toby shouting, screaming and throwing objects across rooms, Toby consistently rejects the idea that he ever feels angry, as that’s not something ‘perfect' people are allowed (although they can be ‘frustrated’ by others’ ethical inadequacies, which he frequently describes feeling). Rather than acknowledge he felt angry during the breakdown of his marriage, he pivots into virtue, by suggesting ‘there was nobility in the suffering’. He looks to paint others as bad or wrong in moments of he feeling shame or insecurity (as seen in his interactions with the junior doctors he’s training; with colleagues above him in the hospital hierarchy; and in how he speaks about Rachel). He refuses to acknowledge that he likes the ‘disgusting’ wealth and its trappings that Rachel’s job affords, despite it accommodating the lifestyle he wants. He glosses over sometimes manipulating his children so that he can get time away from them (such as when he persuades Solly to go to camp), and refuses to say that he’s struggling as a full-time parent and risk contradicting his position of ‘that was the big difference between them, Rachel. He didn’t see their children as a burden, Rachel […]. He liked them, Rachel’.


While Toby uses the ‘perfect’ persona to protect himself from distress, it unfortunately doesn’t do a good job of helping him - in fact, it frequently makes things more difficult. The investment that Toby puts into hiding from shame, insecurity and fears of rejection means that he never confronts these feelings head-on, and therefore never finds a way to effectively soothe and move on from them instead of forcibly squashing them into a box (where they stay with him, even if they seem less visible on the surface). Such is the worry about dropping the ‘perfect’ persona, Toby doesn’t allow himself to show anything but the front: because his vulnerabilities, mistakes, worries and struggles feel as if they would contradict the image of himself as ‘perfect’, they are all concealed from others in his life, which means that nobody else is able to help him with them. Keeping the ‘perfect’ persona up also maintains the belief that he is unacceptable without it, because never dropping the act means that people in his life can’t show him that they would still love him without it. All in all, Toby’s perfectionism equates to a lot of pressure, and the weight of that pressure becomes ever-more apparent throughout the novel.


Just as it’s difficult to experience all of that, it’s also very hard to be in a relationship with someone else, while compartmentalising parts of ourselves. None of us are perfect, and perfection is neither necessary, desirable, nor real – so if we are projecting a ‘perfect’ front, we’re not showing who we really are. If we’re not showing people who we are, they can’t fully connect to us: inauthenticity always creates distance, and a cupboard full of topics designated as 'forbidden'. Although the things that make us imperfect may feel scary to acknowledge, it’s OK to allow them to be part of the picture of who we are - because they will still very much be present, whether we acknowledge them or not. In the novel, we see Rachel is desperate to hear Toby admit to his anger, so that they can actually engage with it together, instead of ignoring it - for Toby, showing more of himself feels wrong; for Rachel, it's the hiding that is unbearable. Toby's commitment to his 'perfect' image keeps them both stuck, unable to address the fissures blooming beneath them.


So, what does the Fleishman ‘trouble’ teach us about the perils of perfectionism? That it puts us into a very pressured dynamic of denial of who we are and what’s going on for us. That it stops us moving forward, and towards. That it might ease distress on one level, but that we can’t make changes that could significantly alter how we feel if we don't engage with what those feelings are. That it traps us. But also, in the margins of the story, there's the question of who could we be if we didn't force ourselves to be something we’re not - and where might that lead us, and our relationships?

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