Learning not to be perfect

Some people- most notably depressive, masochistic and obsessive individuals – come to therapy with brutal inner voices that constantly remind them of their defects, failings and errors. Others – particularly people with significant narcissism – come to therapy with an inner feeling of emptiness or an unrealistic sense of entitlement that leaves them chronologically envious of what others have, which they believe is what they should be having.

The people in this second group may actually be very successful as far as worldly achievements go, such as earning money, fame and power. And yet, in therapy they confide that it still doesn’t feel like “enough”. The less successful individuals in this group come to therapy because their lives are not working for them but they can’t figure out why. They, particularly, have a high tendency for alcohol and substance abuse.

If the therapeutic endeavour is successful, the people in the first group learn that they are not as bad as they feel they are. They learn that everyone has their particular limitations and, most importantly, they learn to accept and even embrace these limitations. They realize that the relentless comparison between their own emotional state and that of a fantasied ideal person is unreasonable.

As their harsh inner voices are softened by repeatedly exposing their hated qualities to a non-judgmental and non-shaming therapist, these people become capable of self-consoling and soothing instead of attacking themselves. They lose their belief that they are uniquely bad, and they become comfortable with being “god enough”. Thus, their self-esteem increases.

Progress with the people in the second group is often slower because of their apparent self-absorption. However, if they decide to remain in therapy, they eventually internalise a sincere therapist’s interest and emotional honesty, as well as relative incorruptibility. Their chilly inner world becomes warmer when they reach this internalisation.

This shift comes from learning by the therapist’s example – the therapist’s willingness to acknowledge mistakes. They eventually come to admire the therapist’s self-respect which they in turn desire to emulate.

Because the people in this second group usually value appearances more than substance, the therapeutic process allows them to become familiar with the pleasures that come from drawing on inner resources. They learn to look inside for what feels true, rather than outside for what is a transient diversion, and to accept what “is” rather than striving for a perfectionistic ideal. Learning to feel better about themselves maintains their self-esteem even in the absence of perfectionism.