How to be perfect – coping with stress and perfection

In this high-tech and increasingly fast-paced world, more and more of us find ourselves trying to be ‘perfect’ and coping with the stress this brings. Associate psychotherapist, Alex Monk discusses the challenges we all face and what we can do to cope with ideals of ‘perfection’.

‘All that glitters’: the illusory elixir of perfection

No matter how much we know rationally that being perfect is a very subjective and illusory bar that inexorably raises and distorts reality, it is nonetheless very easy to be drawn in to its seductive allure. Images of photo-shopped visual ‘perfection’ are pervasive on TV, music videos and across social media: our visual world constantly bombards us with images of bodily ‘perfection’ so manipulated beyond humdrum reality that we too feel that we also need to curate our own lives as we aspire to be ‘perfect’ too. It’s not only the visual perfection which is part of this curatorial disease; it is also in the constant stories of success, stardom, and adoration which dominate our cultural narrative. Of course this is nothing new, but the level of amplification can become deafening and fosters new levels of envy and associated emotional distress. Conversely, failure and inevitable loss are often unseen until they too become sensationalised as part of the perfection narrative (e.g. the media’s pattern of idealising stars then shaming them) which rejects the mundane and all that is not ‘exciting.’

The ideal and perfection

Of course there is nothing wrong with having an ideal or a goal we can aspire to. If our relationship to an ideal is benign, we can see the ideal as a source of inspiration that can nurture our sense of wonder and curiosity. Yet when we stop holding our ideals lightly and begin to grip desperately to them it can all so easily unravel: perfection offers an idealised image of health and happiness yet as we fail to meet its ever-increasing demands, it leads to feelings of shame, anxiety and depression. Trying to cope with the overwhelming nature of these feelings can lead to addictions and unhealthy relationships to ourselves and other people.

Unconscious perfection

As relational mammals, how we think and feel about perfection corresponds to our relational experience: from an early age our sense of security and wellbeing is based upon the validation of our primary carers and through this process we form our ‘internal working model’.

We might think of the internal working model as an inner emotional map that represents our relationship to ourselves and other people. As we go through life we continue to be guided by our map, though we are not aware it is doing so. If as infants we have not had our sense of self validated and made real due to unpredictable, abusive or neglectful caregivers, our inner map only guides us by using distorted, confusing and unreal directions. It makes sense therefore that this creates a similarly unreal relationship with our inner and outer world as we go through life. We also become much more vulnerable to the unreal messages of ‘perfection’ that are packaged to us daily. We are also are much more likely to then have unreal expectations of ourselves and other people.

With such unrealistic expectations we are unconsciously setting ourselves up to fail and as a result, experience the same levels of emotional stress that we felt when we did not have our needs met as infants. We also experience the same sense of being out of control (the map makes no sense and leads nowhere we want to go) as high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are released as we are flooded with overwhelming feelings of rage, shame and envy that we cannot make sense of.

Rupture and repair

Of course it is equally unrealistic and encourages more fantasies of perfection if we expect caregivers to be attuned to meet the needs of their children all of the time. Indeed it is not love and care alone that foster our sense of safety and trust in the world but also our caregivers’ capacity to repair our sense of being wounded when they do not respond in the way we want them to.

As this developmental process continues, we are then gradually more able to tolerate negative feelings instead of being overwhelmed by them. This is so important as it helps us to develop an innate emotional understanding that our caregivers are not the idealised beings we feel they are when we first come in to the world and that they will inevitably let us down from time to time. However we also know that they will be there to help us see that our world is not collapsing, even if they don’t do it in a ‘perfect’ way always, it will be ‘good enough’. We then find a way to understand that although the world is far from perfect too, we feel safe enough within it and have more realistic expectations of our relationships.

An illusory elixir

Perfection is in essence unnuanced, and embraces a wholly idealised and one dimensional picture of reality. For those of us who did not have caregivers who were able to repair our emotional wounds, it can become an internalised stick to beat ourselves with. We can never please the internalised critical voices of those who traumatically broke our idealised image of them and left us with emotional wounds we could not tolerate: we feel that we failed to live up to an imposed ideal which we are always unconsciously and tragically seeking out wherever we can and at whatever cost.  As a final way of salvaging the idealised relationship, the idealisation is also internalised because it is was too unbearable to bear the feelings of the original idealisation being ruptured forever. Our means of repair is to look to perfection as an illusory elixir to repair the original trauma. Sadly perfection is not well known for its healing properties.

Re-framing our relationship with perfection

Life, unlike perfection is multifaceted and nuanced and contains many mundane  and ordinary moments.Success and fame are not ‘final destination’ states of bliss which are never ending. The way in which we perceive perfection is wholly subjective. Yes, the work we do and the relationships we have can always be improved and re-evaluated. However, instead of berating ourselves for something not being ‘perfect’, we can see it as an opportunity to learn and improve without the shackles of harsh self criticism and shame.

We can learn from other people: instead of idealising or envying them for their ‘perfection’, understand that if they have been successful in life, it is often because they have worked hard to do so and they probably haven’t found themselves in a blissful situation overnight. In fact it is often those who are deemed to have reached the blissful perfection of fame that suffer so greatly right in front of our eyes.

So next time you hear an inner voice which taunts you for not being perfect, or being a ‘failure’ first know that this voice probably is inherited from someone else. Secondly, have compassion for that voice as it probably speaks from the hurt part of yourself and only wants to be healed. It might also be helpful to lessen the demands of that voice by replacing time striving for ‘perfection’ with ordinary, imperfect pleasures and understanding that many of the most inspirational aspects of our world have arisen from the ashes of ‘failures’ and ‘errors.’

Alex Monk is an integrative art therapist based in London. To make an appointment with Alex, please contact him via his website.

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