Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Bad Advice of "Always Be Useful"

How perfectionists struggle in their relationships.

Key points

  • Being useful isn't the same as being helpful.
  • There's a selfishness to chronic niceness.
  • Being preoccupied with being good often precludes flexibility.
  • Being good should, sometimes, be its own reward.

For some, everything is a tool, rarely enjoyed for itself.

Celebrity body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger named his recent book Be Useful, the title of which, he noted, was inspired by a refrain from his father: "Be useful, Arnold." So, Arnold, a self-described perfectionist, came to view his life in terms of progress and utility, constantly asking himself: How do I get from here to there? Arnold is a predominantly future-oriented thinker who chronically fears enjoying anything for too long, as expressed in his book and recent documentary.

When you ask a perfectionist about why they're doing something or why they believe something, they'll often tell you, in practical terms, how that decision or idea contributes to either their own individual success or that of their community. On the one hand, they're idealists, dreaming up ways to create utopias. On the other, they're seldom able to enjoy much as an end in and of itself. Significant effort fosters significant expectations and, thus, bitterness when they aren't met.

What is it to do good for its own sake? What is it to strive for character without expecting some form of acknowledgement? Can you do something good without being considered and, thus, considering yourself a “good person”? Being useful is only one aspect of this category of thought; the other is the expectation that others are just as useful in return. So, when a perfectionist is asked to consider the purpose of goodness (in its pure form), they sometimes draw a blank, noting that they've internalized the need to always embody it but can't pinpoint why.

The preoccupation with being good appears to be reflexive. Just the way things have to be. And when someone doesn't reciprocate it, a perfectionist will often argue that it isn't fair because they would do the thing requested without exception. They control their worlds with goodness and utility. Without the expected rewards, the acts of goodness often feel empty on their own, negated by the bleakness of reality, which too frequently informs them that doing the right thing doesn't necessarily mean good things will happen.

Most of us would think that being preoccupied with being great, whether you want to be a great partner or a great patient, means one's relationships must be healthy. Yet, we often find the opposite with our perfectionistic patients. Their rigidity of thought, and constant need for concrete, time-tested strategies, make it difficult for them to connect with their partners and friends. Often, their significant others are left wondering if their perfectionistic partners are merely checking off boxes to pacify them and, consequently, feel good about themselves. Yes, they may be trying to be useful, and helpful too, but they often stubbornly refuse to deviate from that understanding, failing to accept critical feedback indicating how ineffective they really are.

To the perfectionist, life is linear, with predictable outcomes. If I do this, that will happen. It's too frightening to consider the world otherwise. So, being useful can imply a high degree of predictability, at least in theory. Yet, being useful often backfires. If you were to use some method learned in therapy to help your spouse, and she's telling you it isn't working, you aren't being useful. When being good in the hopes that another learns from you and changes how they treat you, you aren't being useful. If you try hard to be a great musician and, over a long period, barely rack up downloads, you aren't being useful. Our perfectionistic clients, who often can't tolerate boredom or wasting time, struggle whenever therapy doesn't lead to progress. Yet, being able to sit with one's therapist and not contribute to the dialogue in a meaningful way can, at times, lead to its own form of growth, especially if the therapist welcomes that sort of conversation.

What's useful isn't always rewarding.

Some people want to learn how to perfectly address their partner when they should just try to be curious. When appearing as though they're reading off of a script, the exchange can feel inauthentic and the perfectionist's motives may come into question. "Why is he trying so hard to be a nice guy?" "Does he actually care about how I feel?" Ultimately, one may come to believe that, to their partner, appearing nice is more important than being nice. Or better yet, that being useful is more important than being considerate.

In arguing that moral perfectionism is, fundamentally, about safety, I’m implying that no one is purely good, so one can begin to let go of being obsessed with pure goodness because it doesn’t exist. I often ask those clients who consider themselves to be nice or good whether it's possible that there's much more to it than what appears on the surface and if their chronic niceness tends to preclude intimacy in their relationships. Additionally, I ask if they're able to be kind to their partners when their partners can't reciprocate, inquiring whether a relationship has to be fully transactional. When perfectionists are self-reflective, they may note becoming angered when their partners aren't kind in turn, feeling inferior to them.

As with anything else, utility, like morality, is good in doses. If one is hardly benefiting from a relationship, they should rethink it. But if one is being kind or useful mainly for a specific type of reward, they may rethink their expectations and the motives for their actions. Sometimes, doing good is its own reward, especially when it's met with silence. That's what makes it so rewarding.


Schwarzenegger, A. (2023). Be Useful. Random House.

More from Leon Garber LMHC
More from Psychology Today