The Unkindness of Perfectionism


‘No one knows better than the perfectionist about his abjection, his own unrelenting incapacity to be as good as he should be’ Adam Phillips, 2010

It can be exhausting to have perfectionist tendencies.  As captured by the psychotherapist Adam Phillips, the quest for perfection, or for things to be the best they can, often feels relentless and unachievable.  Instead of our relationships with others, work situations, achievements, parenting, or appearance being good enough, there is a constant striving and yearning for better.  Often this want is fed by our relationship with the external world.  If we are able to shift our focus instead to our relationship with ourselves, we can find ways to sit more comfortably with what is referred to often in therapeutic terms as being ‘good enough’.

As we continue through early 2017, many of us will be striving towards goals set at the start of the year.  Whilst this can be a positive way to frame realistic changes we would like to bring into our lives, this increased pressure can also lead to disillusionment, hopelessness, drops in self-esteem and confidence and a lack of compassion for our ‘failing’ selves.  We can forget that we might be okay as we are and that we are human.  We do not need to compensate for this.

We can yearn for and work towards the ideal situation for many reasons.  Perhaps your early experience of life was one in which you were only shown love and praise when you achieved.  Maybe your more ordinary being did not seem to attract as much positive attention and care.  We can hope that replicating this as an adult is the only way to be shown positive regard, compassion, care and love.  It may be that you find difficult feelings like grief from loss, disappointment from failure, pain from rejection and shame hard to be with.  We can imagine that if we can create the perfect situation, we will escape experiencing uncomfortable feelings.  Letting go of the perfectionism may also mean a perceived loss of control, which can be very frightening.  However, uncomfortable feelings, which can feel unbearable at times, are a natural part of being human.  With reflection and practice you can find ways to feel more comfortable experiencing and responding to these feelings.

Reconsidering our quest for perfection is not the same as giving up.  We may fear that without this constant internal ‘nagging’ we would fail to achieve, to make the most of our lives and the opportunities we have to live well.  The fear that we might fall into inertia and procrastination if we let go, can be anxiety provoking.  You may also be faced with grieving a perceived failure if you lessen your grip on the impossible state of perfection.  However, this sense of failure and accompanying grief can be repeated over and over again if we don’t find another way of living with our imperfections.  Through fostering self-regard and self-love we can start to trust that we will find our way regardless and see more clearly the positive and healthy changes that are worth working towards.

If you would like to better understand your perfectionist tendencies, the following questions may be a starting place for curious exploration.  A greater understanding of your motivation may lead you to engage more flexibly with the world and more compassionately with yourself.

  • Are you striving to be ‘better’ for yourself or others?
  • What would happen if you stopped striving?
  • What would ‘perfect’ look like in any given situation?
  • Have you ever met your own standards?
  • Are you trying to control feelings or outcomes through perfectionism?
  • Are you fearful of difficult feelings?
  • Could a personal practice, support from others, or working with a therapist help you improve your relationship with these feelings?
  • If you currently refer to yourself as a perfectionist, what would the loss of this way of being leave behind?
  • If you were not seeking approval, what would you do more/less of?
  • Can you introduce more changes in your life which bring you joy?

There are many ways to lessen the pressure we put on ourselves and understanding why we do so is often a good starting place.  Perhaps we can all commit to relieving the burden a little in 2017.



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