From one first-born perfectionist to another

One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read is The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Leman. My dad gave it to me several years ago and it really opened my eyes to why I am, well, how I am; I felt like it gave me a better understanding of where other people are coming from, too. That is especially important for a first-born perfectionist like me who can tend to see things as “my way or the highway.” Dr. Leman is a psychologist who closely studied birth order dynamics and observed recurring traits in first-born children, middle children, and the youngest children. He outlines each birth order with its respective characteristics and discusses how this influences the way a person perceives the world and his or her behavior in it. After reading this book and coming to terms with my own first-born perfectionist traits, I’m pretty good at picking out other first-borns.

By now, you’ve probably guessed where I’m headed. Yes, Axl is a first-born child (followed by brother Stuart and sister Amy — half-siblings, but of course, none of them were aware of that until Axl was in his late teens). And, as much as Axl bristles at the label of perfectionist (third question down), I’m sorry, buddy. You are. But it’s ok. There are lots of us out there and most of us live to tell the tale and learn how to make it work for us instead of against us.

First, let’s take a look at Dr. Leman’s descriptions of a first-born child. Here are what he sees as typical characteristics: perfectionist, reliable, conscientious, list-makers, well-organized, critical, serious, scholarly, goal-oriented, achiever, self-sacrificing, people-pleaser, conservative, supporter of law and order, believer in authority and ritual, legalistic, loyal, self-reliant. Dr. Leman says, “Life is real and life is earnest for the first-born individual. He or she isn’t much for surprises. First-borns prefer to know what’s happening and when. They thrive on being in control, on time and organized.”

Now, some of you who know anything about Axl, may look at that list and say, “‘Supporter of law and order’? From a guy who has been arrested over 20 times?” But when you study him you will see that he does have a sense of justice and order (for example, this is why he gets so upset when fans throw stuff at him and the band on stage — it endangers him, the band, the crew and the other fans, and he won’t stand for it). And what about that “on time” business when everyone knows that Axl Standard Time is vastly different than the rest of the world’s? Here is where we get into an interesting phenomenon that occurs with a lot of first-borns that Dr. Leman calls the “discouraged perfectionist.”

The discouraged perfectionist has — consciously or not — set the bar high for himself. If he perceives that he is not meeting this golden standard that only he has imposed on himself, he begins to feel like a failure. Dr. Leman addresses this in chapter 5:

Discouraged perfectionists may act out of character — be sloppy, for example, but it is all a cover to hide their frustration with life’s less-than-perfect warts and bumps… Many discouraged perfectionists really have difficulties in handling time. They’re the expert procrastinators who sometimes do a little bit and then walk away from the task. They seem to be “either or” kind of people. When they’re running hot, watch out. They’ll trample you getting all that work done. But when they’re running cold, it’s tough to get them to move at all.

I will stop here for a moment to raise my hand and acknowledge that I, Jen, am a discouraged perfectionist. I see it play out everyday in my life. Being aware of it has helped me reduce some of the pressure on myself, but I’m by no means “cured.” I am late to everything I ever go to and once I arrive, I couldn’t really tell you what I had been doing all that time. I am a champion procrastinator, which my parents have teased me about all my life. I can paralyze myself with the feeling of, “If I start this project and cannot have it turn out XYZ, then it’s better not to start it.” I sat here in front of my computer for 6 hours today before I started this post until my husband told me to just get on with it. While many people will point to the excruciatingly long production time for Guns n’ Roses latest album “Chinese Democracy” as being all due to Axl’s perfectionism, I think there were several more things at play in that situation which are topics for another time. But, I can look at some of his earlier behaviors — that seem odd to most people — and recognize it as a discouraged perfectionist in action. Or inaction, as the case may be. Axl himself has said several times that he does not like to go on stage until he feels mentally and emotionally ready to perform an entire show to the best of his ability. I’ll expound on the lateness in another post, but did want to touch on it here since it is such an integral part of the way a first-born discouraged perfectionist tends to function.

Another interesting thing that Dr. Leman notes about discouraged perfectionists is the way they treat others.

Because discouraged perfectionists are often stubborn, opinionated, and strong-willed, they become known for telling people exactly what they think. And what happens if you tell everyone what you think? You drive them away. You lose your friends. Even your enemies don’t want to hang around long enough to try to insult you. When the discouraged perfectionist is told he’s too outspoken, he says, “Okay fine… I’ll just keep everything inside. If you guys can’t handle it, I won’t say anything.”

Sound like anyone we know? It seems that Axl has gotten better about this in recent years, but his mouth has definitely gotten him into trouble in the past.

A lot of people have played armchair psychologist with Axl over the years and many of them have declared him as bipolar or manic depressive. In December 2008, Axl answered fan questions on a Guns n’ Roses message board and one fan asked him about being bipolar. His reponse was:

I’ve not been diagnosed as being bipolar though many misconstrue statements I made earlier as alluding to such and unfortunately there’s been an abundance of misguided or unqualified speculation of various events but I definitely can relate to needing my own space.

In my world all bi polar means (and not to offend or make light of those suffering from a genuine condition or involved with those who are) is that someone can try to take cheap uneducated shots or try to claim I’m bipolar thus justifying why they should get paid a financial settlement for whatever nonsense they’re up to. Fortunately that hasn’t proved successful.

Because of Axl’s often erratic behavior and the “trendiness” of being bipolar, it’s easy to see why people would draw that conclusion. I’m inclined to believe him that he’s not; he has never shied away from talking about his personal struggles and I tend to think that if he were, in fact, bipolar, he wouldn’t have a problem saying so publicly. What I see is a first-born child saddled with perfectionism, anger and resentment built up during a lousy childhood, and a healthy dose of testosterone. Add that all together and explosions are to be expected.

Stay tuned for next time when I take a look at how birth order dynamics can affect a band.

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2 thoughts on “From one first-born perfectionist to another

  1. Lisa says:

    Really, we firstborns, you, Axl and I, should get together and hang out. With Iris. I think she’s one of them there, “discouraged” types. Oh, and Dr. Leman should than you, too, because I am going to buy his book. I’ve read it before and you make me want to read it again.

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