Whiplash: Perfection is Immolation
We live in a world of rapid transformation, high demand, and the harsh pressures of our society. Our culture has such high expectations that it is easy for anyone to become a perfectionist. Ann Smith, a specialist at Everyday Health, simply explains what is now a very common epidemic in our culture:
Perfectionism is a trait that causes us to find comfort in order. When it is overused as a way to cope with anxiety or stress, it can have serious consequences. For example, perfectionists have a deep need to “get it right” and as a result it can interfere with relationships and opportunities in life. It can especially make your relationship with yourself difficult. Perfectionists often do not allow their real selves to be known because they fear they may look foolish or incompetent….Anxiety about mistakes- or fear of making mistakes- can preoccupy their minds and make relaxation impossible (Smith).
Damien Chazelle, an American director, captures the essence of how being perfect can take a toll on our bodies in his 2014 movie Whiplash. This film follows the life of Andrew, a first time music student. Andrew is accepted into a renowned jazz band, The Studio, as a drummer. Soon, it becomes a cutthroat position; his conductor, Terrence Fletcher, uses force and fear to push his students to be perfect. What drives the human mind to submit to other’s wills in order to become perfect? Could it be past failures, or the fear of being a “nobody”? Andrew’s vision of perfection turns into an obsession, where he is not at all bothered by Fletcher’s force. Instead, he uses it as his goal of being great- and making up for his father’s failure of being a writer. Why is he willing to do whatever it takes to become perfect or master his craft? Becoming a perfectionist is unhealthy, and will eventually damage you inside and out. To understand Andrews’s unhealthy obsession, we must know what perfectionism is as a behavior. The idea of being perfect is, according to the Canadian Psychological Association, “a chronic source of stress, often leaving the individual feeling that he/she is a failure.” Some students have high standards set by their parents, and if they fail to meet those standards they feel like they are an embarrassment. On the other hand, some students set high goals for themselves. This could be because of their parents past or present failures and successes. The students could feel pressured to excel to their parent’s accomplishments, or rise above their failures. In this case, Andrew sets the high goal of being perfect at the drums, which is mainly driven by Fletcher’s force. Andrew associates his father’s failure at being a writer as to what he might become if he is not perfect at his profession.
Perfectionism can eventually lead to many severe symptoms. This person will do anything to make something flawless. This can include spending countless hours of going over the same piece, taking time away from other commitments. Spending so much concentrated time on a subject can possibly make the person skip meals, or get little to no sleep to get the subject finished, which causes severe bodily damage. Perfectionism can cause low self-esteem, eating disorders, sleep disorders, anger, and even depression (possible suicide). Andrew pushes his body and mind to the limits to reach his goal. Perfectionism can be classified as a disorder itself. In fact, perfectionism is a symptom of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), anxiety, and over twelve other classified disorders. Perfectionism does have its perks, but in the end, it can cause you to fail more than you anticipated.
Andrew’s family contributes to his low self-esteem. In one particular scene, his family is around the dinner table. While Andrew tries to talk about his upcoming band competition, the family turns the attention to his two same-age cousins who are football players. His uncle ridicules him about not having any friends and how music is not purposeful. Derision like this is what drives people to become perfectionists- to prove that the disbeliever is wrong and that they can be successful. Perfectionists cannot accept themselves for who they truly are- thus, creating the first step into the low esteem “spiral”. According to Marilyn Sorensen, PhD, a psychologist and self-esteem recovery specialist, low self-esteem is:
An irrational and distorted view of self that affects the person’s assumptions, interpretations, perceptions, conclusions & beliefs about himself or herself as well as others. This can result in a person being very critical of self and others and/or using poor judgment in decision-making (Sorensen).
In Andrew’s family, he is the only musician. This makes him feel left out, due to his family’s love of sports. In school, Fletcher’s force provides enough low self-esteem for Andrew. On Andrew’s first day in the Studio Band, he cannot tell if he is dragging or rushing the tempo. Fletcher in turn throws a chair at Andrew’s head. He then asks Andrew to count a simple 4/4 beat. When Andrew reaches the 4 of the beat, Fletcher smacks him in the face and asks if he hit him before or after the fourth beat. Andrew starts to cry, and Fletcher uses hateful words and comments to embarrass him in front of the whole band. After class, Fletcher says that discipline makes great players. Andrew overlooks the low self-esteem and writes it off as chastisement.
Eating disorders can be a result of trying to attain perfection. Perfectionists spend excessive amounts of time on a specific entity to make it flawless. Some people believe that they are so busy that they do not have time to eat. Others skip meals just to use the time they would have used for eating on whatever project they are working on. This can create disorders like Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia can create severe health damage, which can include fatigue, amenorrhea, constipation, bad skin and hair, seizures, dehydration, and poor heart health (Timberline Knolls). Some people have ritualistic behaviors with their food where they can only eat a certain food or amount of food that “allows” them to do well at what they are trying to accomplish. Eating too much is also a symptom. If a perfectionist is depressed, he/she can either eat too much or too little food which still damages their physical and mental abilities.
After Andrew is accepted into the Studio Band, he removes his bed and mattress from his dorm to create room for his drums. This was just the beginning of Andrew’s sleeping disorders. Most of Andrew’s practices are at six a.m. and nine p.m. each day. In addition to his two practices a day, Andrew has classes and homework/studying to do. But with all of the pressures that Fletcher inflicts, Andrew spends almost every waking minute practicing on his drum set, leaving little time for sleep, food, and classwork. In one scene, three drummers including Andrew are competing to play in the upcoming competition. The music is a very fast paced beat that requires a lot of muscle to complete. When none of the three men can drum as fast as the song demands, Fletcher forces them to stay until one of them gets it right. Like a cycle, if one of them cannot play fast enough, the next one gets up immediately to try to beat the other two. The three drummers stay from nine p.m. until three a.m. drumming nonstop until one of them gets it right- the night before the competition. Eventually, the drums are covered in blood and sweat. The other band players are also required to stay in the room until one of them gets the drumming correct. Andrew finally plays it correctly, and Fletcher tells him that he has only a couple of hours to sleep until the competition that morning. On the bus to the performance, it is clear that he is exhausted- but instead of resting, he practices by drumming on his knees. Because he is spending most of his time practicing, and the other half worrying if he is good enough, Andrew loses sleep. All of the anxiety over the music will make him sleep deprived- causing insomnia. Statistically, 30% of Americans suffer from insomnia, while almost 50% of the entire world suffers from it (Silver). Some side effects of insomnia include depression, anxiety, short attention span, are more prone to accidents, and headaches (Mayo Clinic). Andrew believes that losing sleep will give him more time to practice, but in reality less sleep means he will not perform up to his highest potential when playing.
On the day of the biggest show of the season, and the day after Andrew and the three drummers stay up until three a.m. to get the drumming speed correct, his bus breaks down half way to the performance. This immediately puts Andrew into an anxiety attack. He rushes to a local car rental shop, and in a frenzy, accidentally leaves his drum sticks at the rental office. When he gets to the concert hall, Fletcher says that if he isn’t on stage and ready in ten minutes, he will destroy his career- ultimately making him a “page turner” the rest of his time there. Andrew notices that he forgot his sticks, and drives back to the rental shop before he has to be on stage. Andrew, about to turn into the parking lot of the concert hall, is hit by another driver. His car flips, and after a minute Andrew crawls out of the window, grabs his drum sticks, and runs to the building, ignoring the other driver’s demands to stop. Andrew steps onto the stage just in time for the performance, but is visibly hurt and bloody. Due to his injuries, Andrew is not able to play well. Fletcher stops the other players, and tells Andrew that he’s done for. The pressure from music and his drive for wanting to be the best causes Andrew to snap at that moment. He tackles Fletcher while on stage in a fit of rage. Martin Antony and Richard Swinson, authors of When Perfect isn’t good enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism writes that:
…Perfectionism puts people at risk for becoming angry more easily. If you tend to have high standards that are ridged and inflexible, you are at risk for not having your standards and expectations met. Not being able to achieve the goal is one of several common triggers for anger (Antony and Swinson: 174).
Perfectionists become mentally unstable. The self-disappointment and pressure they put on themselves will cause them to be irritable, angry and all together insecure. Perfectionists suppress all of their emotions to seem like they are perfect, but eventually all the pressure will cause them to snap- just like it did with Andrew. Scott Kiloby, author of Living Realization, states that:
Perfectionists often recoil away from conflict, choosing instead a more familiar mode of interacting- complaining and judging. The anger right under the surface turns to judgment before it reaches the point of being expressed. And this is how the suppression happens. All that energy of anger just lies around tucked away, fueling more and more judgment (Kiloby).
This anger and judgment causes Andrew to push away his family members, his girlfriend, and annihilates the chance of having friends. Andrew tells his girlfriend that she will keep him from being the best he can be, and that she will ultimately start to hate him for not spending time together. The attitude of a perfectionist mimics the personality of an introvert. After Andrew’s tackling episode on stage, and being removed from the college, he slowly dips into depression.
Earlier in Whiplash, Fletcher announces to the class that one of the best players he had previously taught has passed away. Later, after Andrew’s incident, a lawyer reveals that the man who had passed away had hung himself after being depressed for a long period of time. Perfectionists go through a cycle. They want everything to be perfect, and will eventually develop anxiety over the situation. They will ask themselves if their work is good enough, and they will worry about being ridiculed. Ultimately, they will fret so much over the situation that they will lose all confidence and slip into depression. Andrew experiences this depression after being removed from the band. He quits playing the drums and packs them away. He spends most of his time walking around, sitting in his apartment, and trying to make amends with his ex-girlfriend. Andrew feels like he has no life purpose and nothing to put his time and energyinto anymore.
Charlie Parker is Andrew’s drumming idol. In Whiplash, Fletcher repeatedly tells Andrew the story about how Charlie became famous. Joe Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie’s head for not playing up to standard. He was laughed off the stage, but the next day he got up and practiced and went on to be one of the greats. Fletcher says, “So imagine if Jones had just said ‘Well that’s okay Charlie. That was alright. Good job.’ But Charlie thinks to himself: ‘Well I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy” (Whiplash: 2014). Fletcher tells this story to Andrew over and over, and eventually Andrew relates that without Fletcher’s abuse, he will not become the next Charlie Parker. Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D states that “pushing towards perfectionism undercuts the core ingredients needed for success.” Being cookie-cutter slashes our chance of creativity and culture. Imagine a world full of completely perfect people. You can’t imagine a world like that- because a perfectionist strives to be better than others. It’s a cycle. In retrospect, that world would be lacking of culture and originality. We were designed to be imperfect, and the sooner we accept it, the more healthy and happy we will be.
Antony, Martin, et al. When Perfect isn't good enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism. New Harbinger Publications, 1998.
Ginsburg, Kenneth. “The Toxic Race to Perfection is Damaging Our Teens”. Psychology Today (October 22, 2011)
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Diseases and Conditions: Insomnia”. Mayo Clinic (April 4, 2014)
Perera, Karl. “Overcoming Perfectionism”. More Self-Esteem (ND)
Scott, Kiloby. “A Perfectionist’s Call”. Living Realization (2013)
Silver, Rich. “4 Essential Facts about Insomnia.” Sleep Passport (No Date)
Smith, Ann. “Why Being a Perfectionist Can Make You Depressed”. Everyday Health (July 25, 2013)
Sorensen, Marilyn. “Questions and Answers about Low Self-Esteem (LSE)”. The Self-Esteem Institute (ND)
Timberline Knolls Treatment Center Staff. “Anorexia Symptoms and Effects” Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center (ND)
Whiplash (USA: Damien Chazelle, 2014)