How Perfectionism Makes Us Ill – Free Ebook

There is a kind of person who seems – at first 
glance – to benefit from an admirable degree of  

self-motivation, thoroughness and drive. They 
are up at dawn, they rarely take holidays,  

they are always sneaking in an extra hour or 
two of work. Their bosses are highly impressed,  

they are constantly promoted, their grades 
have been excellent since primary school,  

they never miss an appointment or turn in 
a piece of work that is less than stellar.

We like to say that such a person has high 
standards; we might even anoint them with  

the term ‘perfectionist.’ It might seem churlish 
to locate any problems here. Why complain about  

a somewhat overzealous devotion to perfection in 
a troubled and lackadaisical world? There could  

surely be nothing too awful about high exactitude? 
What could be so imperfect about perfectionism?

The concern is not so much with 
the work of the perfectionist  

(its recipients are in a privileged position) 
as with the state of their soul. Perfectionism  

does not – tragically – spring first and 
foremost from any kind of love of perfection  

in and of itself. It has its origins 
in a far more regrettable feeling  

of never being good enough. It is rooted in 
self-hatred – sparked by memories of being  

disapproved of or neglected by those who should 
more fairly have esteemed us warmly in childhood.

We become perfectionists from a primary 
sense of being unworthy; uninteresting,  

flawed, a disappointment, a letdown, a nuisance. 
So powerful is this sense, so appalling is it in  

its pressure on our psyches, we are prepared 
to do more or less anything to expunge it:  

working at all hours, currying favour with 
authority, doing twice as much as the next person,  

these are the tools with which we seek to cleanse 
our apparently shamefully undeserving selves.

One part of the mind promises the other that the 
completion of the next challenge will finally  

usher in peace. We can be very good at 
pretending that our ambitions are sane.  

But our work has a sisyphean dimension. No sooner 
have we rolled our working boulder up the hill  

than it will tumble back down again. 
There is never going to be a point of rest  

or a lasting feeling of completion. We 
are – in truth – ill rather than driven.

We aren’t interested in perfect work at all: we 
are trying to escape from a feeling of being awful  

people – and work simply happens to be the medium 
through which we are striving to grow tolerable in  

our own eyes. But because our problem didn’t begin 
with work, nor can work ever prove the solution.

Our real goal is not, as we think, to 
be an ideal employee or professional,  

it is to feel acceptable. But responsibility 
for a sense of acceptance cannot be handed  

over to our bosses or customers or a ceaselessly 
demanding capitalist system; these will never  

let us rest easy because it is in their nature, 
without any evil intent, always to demand more.

We need to shift our sense of where our drive is 
coming from. We are not unnaturally interested  

in working perfectly, we are labouring 
under an unusually intense impression  

that we are dreadful people – a problem for 
which working harder cannot be the answer.

We need to allow ourselves to imagine that 
we deserved to be accepted from the start  

and that it cannot forever be our 
fault in our minds that we were not.  

It is not up to us to try to prove 
that we have a right to exist.  

It is asking too much of ourselves to have 
to experience a referendum on our legitimacy  

every time we hand in a report, every exam we 
have to pass, every customer we have to serve.

Working well is – naturally – an admirable goal. 
But it becomes a symptom of a mental perturbation  

when it becomes the cover for a secret 
aspiration to correct a deficit of early love.  

We should welcome an ability to 
tolerate periods of laziness,  

not because we are congenitally idle – but 
because it is a sign that we have learnt  

to speak more kindly to ourselves and to be 
appropriately angry with those who could not  

at the outset accept us for who we were 
without a surfeit of trophies and prizes.

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