The quest for psychological perfection
Why I've wholeheartedly embraced it, and why everyone else should, too
Image credit: “Pneuma,” © Kelsy Landin
Recently my friend and colleague Ray Girn published this weekly memo addressed to everyone at his company, Higher Ground Education—an organization whose mission is to “mainstream and modernize Montessori education”:
The memo champions the once-reverenced pursuit of perfection—of the highest standards of excellence in our work and in our own character—as a serious, mission-critical ideal. Ray notes that the very concept of perfection has gotten a bad name in our culture, which equates the genuine pursuit of perfection with pathological perfectionism: what he calls a “serious baby-with-the-bathwater mistake.”
Yet, he reminds us, it has not always been so; the quest for excellence and moral perfection was a widely celebrated ideal in ancient Greece and in the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, and was unironically embraced by luminaries ranging from Ben Franklin to Maria Montessori.
Ray’s memo goes on to focus on the centrality of this now-heterodox ideal in Montessori’s writings on healthy human development and, correspondingly, in his company’s educational philosophy and mission. But his message also deeply resonated with my experience as an increasingly outspoken champion of perfection and excellence within the psychological establishment. It’s this pursuit of psychological perfection—why it’s so controversial, how I’ve come to embrace it, and what I think it means (and doesn’t mean)—that I want to explore in the rest of this post.
Shedding my own perfectionistic drill sergeant
In line with Ray’s observations about the larger culture, most psychologists and mental health advocates have a particularly adversarial relationship with the concept of “perfection.” Citing the increased rates of depression, anxiety, burnout, and even suicide associated with pathological perfectionism and even certain forms of neurotic self-improvement, most of my fellow coaches and therapists miss no opportunity to remind clients that “nobody’s perfect,” that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and so on. Indeed, most mental health and wellbeing advocates have rallied around the promotion of radical acceptance—which hardly seems compatible with the relentless drive toward perfection.
Having reckoned with my own perfectionistic inner drill sergeant for years, I’ve seen its debilitating effects not only on myself, but on many of my brightest and most troubled clients. And I owe a great debt of gratitude to the various therapeutic approaches—most notably cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—which have taught me to let go of that rigid, tyrannical mindset, replacing its constant criticism and negativity with kinder, more patient and constructive forms of self-talk.
In addition to CBT’s powerful tools for challenging the irrational content of perfectionism (like the belief that “no one will ever give me a second chance if I mess up even once”), acceptance- and compassion-focused therapies offer a host of insights and strategies for relating to the content itself in a more constructive, less perfectionistic way. For instance, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) guides us to accept the full range of our thoughts and feelings—including irrational thoughts like “no one will ever give me a second chance,” and the chest tightness or nervous stomach knots that accompany them—as valuable signals on our mental dashboard, rather than either trying to eliminate them entirely (which often just makes them come back stronger) or taking their warnings at face value.
In short, learning to pull back from perfectionism was an overwhelmingly positive development in my life.
The cynicism of the Zen master
In pulling back from perfectionism, I also found myself with less to push me forward—despite no less acute an awareness of the still enormous gap between my current self and the better, happier, healthier self I could become.
I was doing fine in grad school, by conventional standards; but I still lacked the courage to pursue the research ideas that excited me most, much less the self-discipline to see them through. I was no longer actively self-destructing in my relationships; but my anxious attachment style still prevented me from enjoying them fully, much less from being as choosy as I might have been if I weren’t so afraid of being alone.
Did casting off perfectionism have to mean settling for these imperfections?
According to the modern therapeutic approaches I was knee-deep in studying and practicing at the time, the answer seemed to be a resounding “yes.” After all, everyone feels like an impostor in grad school; no one is self-disciplined all the time; we all procrastinate sometimes; we are only human; nobody’s perfect; the perfect is the enemy of the good. The one therapeutic target that every school of therapy could agree on was self-acceptance; and how could I hope to cultivate self-acceptance in my patients if I couldn’t practice it myself?
In freeing me from the tyranny of perfectionism, the field had armed me with a fresh arsenal of rationalizations against the ambitious pursuit of excellence.
Luckily, the idealist in me could not be so easily quelled. But absent an explicit approach to inspire and guide the further work of perfecting myself, I largely reverted to oscillating between the perfectionistic drill sergeant I knew so well, and the perfection-eschewing Zen master approach I’d picked up from my therapeutic training.
I now think both of these approaches are wrong, and both of them imply a depressingly deflated view of the human potential. As I’ve written about before, it’s the builder, not the drill sergeant, who genuinely cares about excellence; for the builder’s excellence is in service of the particular life she wants to build, whereas the drill sergeant threatens you with “excellence” as a vague, arbitrary dictate you have to appease before being allowed to build and enjoy your own life in the first place. And indeed, the resulting “perfectionism” is rarely about the pursuit of our own sincerely held, well-articulated ideals of perfection. More often it is the defensive, counterfeit form of that pursuit: an exercise in going through the motions of “pursuing excellence” in order to escape the guilt and anxiety imposed by our inner drill sergeant, or simply to numb the uncomfortable awareness of lacking a genuine ideal.
By equating the genuine quest for perfection with its fake, neurotic counterpart, the psychological establishment renders both pathological. Thus, in the name of preserving psychological wellbeing, it discourages the ambitious pursuit of excellence in any domain of our lives—including, ironically, our own psychological wellbeing.
In so doing, it cuts us off from pursuing the very ideals of personal excellence—ideals like action-orientation, self-honesty, and industriousness—that could deliver us from pathological perfectionism, among many other ills.
In developing my “builder” framework, I’ve set my sights on a higher psychological ideal.
A vision of perfection: the builder’s ideal
In championing the quest for self-perfection, I’m not talking about “perfection” as some arbitrary, impossible, nitpicky standard set by some arbitrary external authority. I’m talking about the broadly Aristotelian concept of perfection as “potential fully actualized”; as excellence in the exercise of one’s capacities and the realization of one’s carefully chosen ideals.
This is the sense in which a dish is “perfect” if it achieves its aim of nourishing and delighting those who consume it, or that a home is “perfect” if it succeeds in fulfilling the physical and psychological and aesthetic needs of those who live in it.
In the case of a human being’s psychological perfection, the standards need to be set by a careful, reality-oriented study of the human potential for thriving and the virtuous mindsets, practices, and habits that tend to give rise to it. My own studies have led me to conceive of human beings as fully actualized when they are functioning as builders; hence this newsletter’s focus on spelling out the mindsets, practices, and habits by which we build ourselves into builders. This includes, of course, the cultivation of a builder’s mindset, but also of self-trust, of first-principles thinking, of win-win relationship skills, of purposeful routines for managing your mental energy, of an agential attitude toward risk and calamity, and other qualities on which I’ve yet to write. The work of perfecting oneself, at this broad characterological level, amounts to practicing and mastering those excellences to such an extent that they become second-nature.
Inherent in this vision of “perfection” is the embrace of trial-and-error learning and experimentation as necessary aspects of any worthwhile human endeavor. Integrating this commitment to tolerating and learning from error as part of one’s ideal of self-perfection is, by the way, one of the most powerful correctives for neurotic perfectionism.
A realizable ideal
The question that often comes up when I speak of “psychological perfection” is: what makes me think it’s actually possible? My answer is three-fold:
1) Because I’ve now met a few people who’ve actually achieved it. In the years since my own struggle to find a way out of the “drill sergeant”/“Zen master” dichotomy (I wasn’t yet calling it that) as a grad student, I’ve deliberately sought out and surrounded myself with some of the very best people I know; and I’ve found several among them who I’d say have fully internalized the mindset and character of a builder. (I won’t call them out by name here lest it offend their modesty, though I suspect they probably know who they are.) This doesn’t mean they don’t have specific weaknesses and blindspots to overcome, or that they don’t still make plenty of mistakes, including some foolish and preventable ones. But it means they have the psychological wherewithal to maintain or quickly regain perspective on these various challenges, keeping their fundamental vision of life and of their own goals in view; and that they take action and ownership accordingly. Above all, it means they are on a constant trajectory of building and growing: of envisioning and vigorously pursuing ever-new heights of perfection in their work, their relationships, and, yes, their own psychology. These individuals have inspired much of the work I do and the vision I hold for my clients, and for many of the insights contained throughout this newsletter.
2) Because I’ve tasted it for myself, despite still having plenty more work to do. Truly I am closer to perfection now than I was 5 or 10 years ago, and the fulfillment I am able to reap from my career, my relationships, my parenting, every aspect of my life, are direct reflections of that progress.
3) Most importantly and rewardingly of all, because I’ve now seen many of my clients reap those same fruits in every area of their lives—finding unprecedented success and satisfaction in their work, their marriages, their friendships, their creative pursuits, even their most private reveries—as they’ve raised their own psychological bar in ways no one had ever dared suggest to them before. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of changes my clients have enacted, in their own words (re-printed anonymously and with their permission, of course). They are my ultimate inspiration, and my ultimate proof that psychological perfection is both achievable and eminently worth achieving.
But what of radical acceptance?
On a builder’s mindset, “radical acceptance”—at least in the sense meant by its originator Marsha Linehan, who defined it primarily as a recognition of reality, rather than as approval or resignation to that reality—is not only compatible with achieving psychological perfection, but a critical step toward it. Where I differ from mainstream conceptions of “acceptance” is that I regard it as part of a tight feedback loop with the quest for perfection: the goal is not merely to find peace with the way we are, but to build an ever healthier, wiser, more vital version of ourselves.
To take an analogy: if we notice a potentially cancerous lump on our breast, we would not be well-advised to stop at attending to it nonjudgmentally; rather we would do well to get it examined by a medical professional, and if it turns out to be a malignant tumor, then to do everything in our power to remove it. And we do not settle for a mediocre, checked-out oncologist to do the job for us, if we can help it; we seek out the most excellent medical team we can find, within our budget and time constraints.
The same approach will apply to our handling of our own psychological “lumps,” should we discover them; but we cannot proceed with getting them addressed before doing the due diligence to figure out what and where they are. If we have difficulty trusting our own judgment because of a track record of self-deception, or we sometimes succumb to a “helpless victim” rather than “agential builder” mentality, or we oscillate between perfectionistic appeasement of our inner drill sergeant and emotionally detached indulgence of our inner Zen master, we need to understand and accept that this is the psychological reality we are working with—and we need to embrace the work of changing it for the better.
Nurturing perfection in practice: A more ambitious therapeutic approach
This way of relating to one’s psychological imperfections bears a lot of resemblance to established therapeutic approaches; only it sets its sights higher, rejecting all the various tradeoffs and limitations that mainstream approaches take for granted. To illustrate, here’s how a few different therapies might approach a patient with a “victim” mindset:
A psychodynamic or psychoanalytic therapist might assume that the patient’s “victim” narrative is serving some unconscious protective function for her, as most of our conscious thoughts actually aim at doing. In this light, the therapist would attend primarily to the “defensive functions”—the ulterior motives, if you will—that could be causing her to think in this way. For instance, perhaps the patient has adopted a victim mindset so she can be emotionally prepared the next time she does get victimized, or so she doesn’t have to blame herself if something goes wrong.
A CBT therapist might instead assume that the patient has learned this way of thinking and behaving from her social environment, and would focus primarily on teaching her to think and/or behave in a more adaptive way: for instance, by collecting evidence for and against her belief that she is “helpless,” or by going out and doing things that give her a sense of her own agency.
An ACT therapist might instead assume that the patient’s “I am helpless” thoughts are empty abstractions that she has been linguistically conditioned to associate with certain negative emotions, and with other empty abstractions (such as “self” or “excellence”), which in turn link up to still further negative emotions, forming a tight web of mental associations that is impossible—and ultimately unnecessary—to untie. Thus the therapist might guide the patient simply to accept her “I am helpless” thoughts as passing mental events, without needing either to analyze or evaluate them, nor get rid of them entirely, nor let them dictate what she chooses to do in the here-and-now.
Each of these tacks, I’ve found, has a crucial place in the work of pursuing psychological perfection. Of course you need to be able to recognize when you have an ulterior motive, to check the validity of your thoughts against reality, and to let certain thoughts go by without needing to get wrapped up in them every time. But none of these tacks in isolation fully leverages your agency over your own mind and character, including the mindsets you internalize (or de-internalize) over time.
In contrast to each of these mainstream approaches, I conceive of human beings as fully capable of building, and re-building, themselves—motives, mindsets, emotions, action habits, and all. I do not think our ulterior motives are as invisible to us or as immune to our conscious volitional control as a psychodynamic therapist assumes; else I would not believe us capable of practicing and developing self-trust. Nor do I think we adopt our beliefs and thinking patterns from our social environment as mechanically as the CBT therapist assumes; else I would not believe we needed to develop self-trust, in addition to whatever practical thinking and decision-making skills we might pursue. And nor do I think our abstract beliefs about ourselves and the world are either ultimately meaningless or unalterable, as the ACT therapist assumes; else I would not invest so much effort in coaching people toward a builder’s perspective on themselves and the world.
For the builder within us
When my colleagues counsel against the pursuit of perfection, they betray a lack of optimism about the human capacity for self-determination: for choosing and upholding our own standards of excellence, rather than living forever at the mercy of whatever arbitrary standards we happened to ingest from our society or our parents or our evolutionary ancestors. So they caution us against taking any standards of excellence too seriously, lest we sacrifice too much of our own psychological health and thriving to these arbitrary standards that were not written with us in mind.
But I say we can do better. We can form our own ambitious conception of exemplary health and thriving, as suited to the particular fully-lived life we want to pour our whole selves into building and enjoying during our limited time on this earth—conventional standards be damned. And we can fight for that deeply personal vision of perfection with all our might, even when it means fighting our own psychological demons along the way. Not in service to God or country or our boss or our therapist or some stodgy inner drill sergeant, but in loving dedication to the builder within ourselves.