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Healing Yourself With Greatness

The false promise of perfectionism: Achieving lofty goals won't fix everything.

Key points

  • Maturity implies acknowledging one's imperfections.
  • Absolute perfectionism differs from relative perfectionism in meaningful ways.
  • Perfectionism is often a means of erasing past trauma.
  • No achievement will finally make someone love themselves.

Character is humility.

Our patients sometimes ask us: What is a good person? And we answer: Someone who probably doesn’t believe they are. The paradox of character is that you don’t experience it; others do. If you think you’re good or successful, there’s a good chance you aren’t. Arguably, being good is an ideal to aspire to but one that can’t be fully reached.

Thus, character is also self-awareness.

The more we learn about ourselves, the more of our imperfections we discover. There are two types of self-oriented perfectionists. The first believe they’re perfect. The second believe they can be. In a world littered with self-actualization and self-help literature, some people consider perfection an attainable goal. Yet, unlike the self-help industry, psychotherapy chronically reminds you of all of the ways in which you fall short, without promising improvement. And that’s why many often prefer the former.

So, I would argue that highlighting your imperfections, as opposed to dwelling on your achievements or your unmet goals, is a significant marker of maturity. To be good for goodness’ sake, rather than being good to feel like a good person, means accepting the reality of having done a good deed and feeling decent due to it, meaning you can see the distance between you and goodness.

There’s a distinction between absolute perfectionism and relative perfectionism, which is significant to note. The former carries with it the expectation of being perfect everywhere, all the time, and to everyone. The latter is about adaptation. Just as a species adapts to a specific environment over eons, the relative perfectionist acknowledges where they are in their progress, how far they have left to go, where others are in the same area (comparison isn’t always a bad thing), and why those particular skills (or insights) aren’t a great fit in every environment. Again, humility.

Perfectionists often struggle with humility, in part because perfection as an end affords them an overarching purpose. For many, perfection is a way to offset and eliminate trauma, the payout from a years-long owed debt from the universe. When your suffering is intense, it’s reasonable to want instant and all-encompassing relief from both your internal critic (the residue of the past) and the external ones (future tormentors confirming your skewed self-image).

Perfectionism and success

Trauma is a conquerer. It has a way of subduing one and keeping one in captivity for as long as a lifetime. When we consider suffering, we think of moments or strings of them, focusing on the acts and their immediate consequences. But trauma’s footprints, carving its initials into us, possess the ability to substantially alter our goals, beliefs, and feelings, essentially creating an automaton who solely aspires to greatness, chasing pure comfort like an addict. Yet, success never feels like it’s enough.

The mind that tends to disqualify any form or amount of success, that finds reasons for it not to count, will do so unless the victory is perfect or beyond criticism. But what sort of success is that? What amount of success is without luck or privilege? Who’s truly self-made? And what sort of success can ever fully disprove how you see yourself?

In the famous line from the film Cool Runnings, John Candy’s character notes: “If you aren’t enough without a gold medal, you’ll never be enough with one.” In my understanding, Candy meant that your qualities exist outside of any specific achievement. And if you can’t see them yet, a gold medal (any achievement, really) is unlikely to help you see them later.

Yet, mediocrity, as the apparent alternative, doesn’t seem any better because being average implies the potential for more harm; to the perfectionist, average people aren’t protected, just as they weren’t when they were one of them.

In describing individuals struggling with narcissism, psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams writes, “In therapy, they may have the ego-syntonic expectation that the point of undergoing treatment is to perfect the self rather than to understand it and to find more effective ways of handling its needs.” And, as significantly, treatment is about building character, which means facing the reflection of one’s windexed mirror.

In treatment, when effective, the high achiever’s perfectionistic tendencies are redirected to some extent. They learn to partially re-channel their drive for greatness toward another’s growth, finally accepting their need for companionship. They learn about their distorted thinking and cast blame where it belongs, no longer obsessing over fixing themselves to preempt future trauma. The high performer finds meaning in helping others, leaving behind their own indelible footprint as a mentor. If successful, therapy contributes to the development of an outward gaze, which teaches the perfectionist that lasting greatness abides in their painstaking influence on others.

The above-noted dark side of the high achiever evolves into an ever-present radiance, shining its light just like the sun. They don’t forget about themselves, but their focus is no longer solely on themselves.


McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis. Guilford Press.

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