017: Ask David — Dare to be “average”—The perfectionist’s script for self-defeat

In this podcast, David answers a challenging question posed by a listener:

Dear Dr. David:

In your Feeling Good Handbook, you suggest that the reader just allows himself or herself to be an ordinary person instead of trying to be perfect. Contrary to your opinion in the book, you’re an outstanding therapist in reality. You’ve studied in one of the world’s top colleges, you’re well-educated with a doctor degree, and successful in your career and life. How can I believe your claim? I’m quite confused!

Sincerely, XXX

David first distinguishes perfectionism from the healthy pursuit of excellence, and then describes a painful incident when he was a Stanford medical student. One afternoon, he attended an afternoon Gestalt encounter group at the home of a friend and mentor in Palo Alto. During the group he was ripped to shreds by the other participants. At the end of the group, the other participants seemed elated, but he felt intensely humiliated, ashamed, and discouraged. This led to an unexpected interaction with his mentor that helped to change his life.

David also discusses his clinical work years later with a depressed and anxious professional who had never experienced even one minute of happiness in spite of a life of fabulous success and achievements.

At the end, David and Fabrice promise a future podcast on this topic: “Self-Esteem: What is it? How do I get it? How can I get rid of it once I’ve got it?”

20 thoughts on “017: Ask David — Dare to be “average”—The perfectionist’s script for self-defeat

  1. I love your podcast! It is really helpful to me as a new therapist. David is right that the relaxed format, free of perfectionism, works! I feel like I am sitting in a coffee shop with two colleagues I like and respect. Look forward to our next cup of coffee!

    Thanks so much,
    Susie Click

  2. Outstanding Podcast! When I opened up to people that I sometimes have anxiety, they opened up to me about their challenges. It really strengthened my connection with others.

    • Thanks, Rod, I have experienced the exact same thing! It is a profound thing to discover, in my opinion! Keep listening and posting your cool comments! All the best, david

  3. Hi David,

    I love yours and fabrices relaxed conversational style covering a hugely important topic which can plague people. I’m really looking forward to further secrets of self esteem.


  4. Good enough is never good enough. We must do what is required, regardless how we ‘feel’ about it; if we’re not competent to do a job, someone who is will replace you. No one cares how well you’re developing, they want petfect performance NOW.
    Most scientific papers are ignored, most businesses fail; most studies don’t get funding, most kids can’t afford college without crippling debt. Most people wll live in economic insecurity, because only the very, very few “good enough” are successful.

    Does it feel odd for you, one of the very lucky, to tell peope they should strive to be average? Most people ARE average—being average is a death sentence in today’s economy. People don’t get hired or promoted for being average—why are you telling people to aim for that?

    • Hi anonymous,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and impassioned comment, and I’m sure that lots of people feel the way you do! In fact, that’s how I felt during the early years of the career. And certainly, trying to be perfect DOES have a long list of advantages and benefits! So we’re kind of on the same page.

      At the same time, I like to distinguish neurotic perfectionism from the healthy pursuit of excellence. Just my thinking, by the way, nothing I’m insisting on for others. To me, there’s nothing wrong with trying to do good work, or even great work. Where would we be without an Einstein or an Edison or a Bill Gates, for example? But when your standards get so high that you fear failure, and are devastated when you fail or fail to meet a goal, sometimes that kind of thinking can be crippling, in terms of DECREASED productivity and creativity, and those self-critical thoughts can be devastating emotionally, too.

      But I am a therapist, and not trying to sell the world on this or that correct way of thinking or feeling. The people who come to me are usually asking for help, and perfectionism often seems to be one of mind-sets that is causing enormous suffering, thinking and feeling they are not “good enough” or “should” be better than they are. But if your perfectionism is working for you, and not getting in the way, then you’re doing just fine, and aren’t needing any help or asking for any help, which is totally fine, in fact it’s terrific!

      I tried to answer a previous email from you a month or so ago, but found that the email address you were using did not seem to be a real email address–which struck me as odd, since your thinking is very sharp! No need to hide, in my opinion. Keep your great thoughts coming. I welcome all criticisms, and try my best to learn from them, as I’ve learned they are usually gifts in disguise.

      But learning from and welcoming criticism or disagreement was not always the case in my early, and more perfectionist phase!

      All the best, David

      • Who cares about Edison or Gates? I’m talking about people terrified of being homeless, terrified about not having money to feed their children! Because if you’re not perfect nowadays you won’t get hired, or keep your job. People aren’t driving themselves from some ‘neurotic’ fear. They’re doing what is necessary to stay alive.

      • Oh, yes, problems like homelessness or needing jobs are real. These are not psychiatric problems! When I was still living in Philadelphia, I developed a large cognitive therapy program at my hospital. Because it was in a tough neighborhood, most of our patients had few resources. Many could not read or write, and some were homeless. Very few had private health insurance. But in addition to their very real problems of where to sleep at night, and how to support themselves, they also had significant and often severe problems with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and so forth. Thousands of people in our neighborhood received treatment with what we were then calling cognitive therapy. Now I call it TEAM-CBT, because the methods have evolved. But that population was one of the easiest to work with, and the most grateful for the help they received. They had all the same kinds of self-critical distorted thoughts that high functioning individuals often have. But they almost seemed easier to treat, perhaps because of the high morale in our treatment group, and perhaps because they were grateful the hospital was doing something for them. But yes, I’ll have to leave social problems to the experts in that area. My focus is on helping people with psychiatric and psychological problems.

        I notice that your responses to the podcasts sometimes have a bit of a sharp edge. However, all the points you make are excellent. Let me apologize for anything I’ve said that has annoyed you, or if I have not been a good listener.

        Oh, by the way, I used to help people with job interviewing training. I must say, I’ve never seen an employer looking for a candidate who was “perfect,” or trying to present himself or herself as “perfect.” The keys to successful interviewing, in my experience, are radically different from this. But certainly, if have skills that can contribute, that’s a big plus, and if you come across as warm and friendly and someone who is likely to be a good team member–that’s huge. And also, if you know how to form a good connection with the person who is interviewing you, showing an interest in them, as opposed to trying to impress them by being perfect.

        But again, that’s just my experience, and I am often way off base!

        All the best, David

  5. Thank you David and Fabrice for this great encouraging podcast on the Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat.

    I want to hear your opinion on this: What if people intentionally present their vulnerability/weakness in order to be more likable to others, or even to manipulate others? As you said, sharing one’s failures encourages others to open up as well. That gets me thinking about comedians who share their (scripted) failures on stage as a technique to getting the audience to feel closer to them.

    That’s actually what I feel about myself sometimes — I feel I’d like to be a ‘harmless’ figure, and sharing my failures to get others’s empathy and support seems to work; but something doesn’t feel that right…

    • Hi Anita,

      You are right. All the ideas and techniques I write about have a healthy and unhealthy side to them. In other words, you can use your vulnerability as a way of developing deeper and more joyous relationships with people; but you can also use this as a trick to manipulate others, as a con artist might do. In addition, you can sometimes over-use a particular way of relating to others. For example, sometimes you may need to be assertive, or to use inquiry to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling, rather than always play a single role, such as being a “harmless” figure.

      I am not an expert in Karl Jung, but it is my understanding that he felt that we have a vast number of roles we can assume as human beings. But if we see ourselves in just one limited role, we end up limiting our capacity for joy, intimacy and human interaction. These of course are just general concepts. I therapy, I always work with a specific example of an unsuccessful or frustrating interaction the patient has had with someone. Then you can do some tremendous work. If you want to learn more, you might want to read my most recent book, Feeling Good Together.




      • Thank you David. I really appreciate your reply! Your new book is already on my list. 🙂

      • That’s great! Let me know what you think once you’ve had the chance to read it. Personal relationship issues are among the most challenging in psychotherapy, in my experience. I often see a complete elimination of the symptoms of depression and anxiety after just a couple hours working with someone–but relationship problems, for some reason, usually take much longer, even though the therapy techniques are extremely powerful. I am trying to figure out why there is such a difference.

        I have seen that even therapists struggle with problems in intimate relationships, and typically persist in dysfunctional patterns of interacting that trigger feelings of unhappiness and loneliness!


  6. Dear David,

    First of all, I would like to tell you that using the methods in your many wonderful books has changed my life!!

    I have a question and it would be great to get your input 🙂 I work as a team leader/software engineer in a software company. I like my profession (I enjoy programming and managing) but I also care deeply about the environment and animals (I also volunteer in a environmental non profit organisation). This situation leads to a recurring thought that causes me a lot of suffering : “I’m wasting my life when I’m working in this job (software).”

    I feel that my life calling is working with animals/helping the environment and as long as I’m not working at that I’m wasting my life. Is this true? Am I wasting my life? Is this the hidden emotion (elephant in the room) that causes this thought?

    I really need your help!

    Thanks 🙂

  7. It seems to me, however, daring to open up and show vulnerability and be average only draw people to connect with you _if_ you were already outstanding and excellent. If you’re already an average joe like the rest of them, or nobody worth noting, you can open up all you want to, and no one will spare you an extra glance. So this technique seems to only be for perfectionistic people who have achieved great successful careers, but not perfectionistic people with average accomplishment (such as a mom who must do all her cooking just this way, etc.)

    • Thanks, Kase! You make an excellent and thoughtful point. However, it is on a general level, and I don’t have much luck unless I am working with a specific issue someone wants help with. The devil, as they say, is in the details, the specifics. Then everything opens up like a flower and everything suddenly looks radically different.

      So I am wondering–is there something that you want help with? Then we could see what kinds of ideas and tools might be useful.

      By the way, power to Moms, who in my opinion are vastly underappreciated, and who do amazing and wonderful things. You have mentioned that “no one will spare you an extra glance.” This is sad to hear, but I am also wondering if you are feeling unappreciated by those around you, and perhaps a bit hurt, understandably, or even angry? It’s no fun to be working hard, and giving, giving, giving, and not getting much in return! Of course, I am just speculating, as I don’t have much data.


  8. David, Thank you for the informative talk. Most of my life I strived for excellence and I succeeded. Then I had many setbacks in life, change of marital status etc. and then it almost became protection and perfection to control what I had left. Through contemplation recently and my Therapist asking me to read your book. I finally realized I had just been unhappy for a significant amount of time, and with that said I abandoned My Purpose. Which is our sense of excellence and joy. Your insight resonated with my recent contemplation. Iam hopful I can let my Therapist in, so I can make some further progress. Warmly, Tamara

    • Thanks, Tamara! There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with striving for excellence. The problems arise when you starting beating up on yourself for failure or falling short. I’m happy to see you’re on a great journal of discovery and growth! Please thank your therapist, for me, for recommending my book. I appreciate it!


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