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Existential Perfectionism and Regret

Learning to live in the real world.

Key points

  • "Existential perfectionism" is the belief that a perfect life exists.
  • The belief that there is a perfect life to lead leads to frustration, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment.
  • Finding satisfaction and contentment involves accepting the trade-offs of a real life.
Liza Summer/Pexels
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

If you are on social media, you probably think that your friends and the strangers you call “friends” are living ideal lives filled with joy, perfect relationships, and fulfilling jobs.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the more time people spend on social media, the more likely they are to feel depressed and envious.

We have bought the message that our lives should be fulfilling, we should only do what we want to do, we should be happy all the time, and our work should never be boring.

This is what I have called "existential perfectionism" in my book Emotional Schema Therapy.

Existential Perfectionism

This idealized way of thinking involves seven illusions about life. Do you or anyone you know endorse any of these?

  1. I should have an ideal life, and I am entitled to be happy and fulfilled.
  2. I cannot stand being frustrated. In fact, I shouldn’t be frustrated.
  3. I demand that I get things my way.
  4. I complain about things quite a lot.
  5. I am often dissatisfied that things aren’t the way I want them to be.
  6. I keep chasing after goals, and once I reach them, I want more. (Receding reference points)
  7. I get disillusioned easily.

If you think this way, you may often feel unhappy or bitter. Comparing real-world outcomes to ideal fantasies will often lead you to regret the decisions you have made.

How can you learn to live in the real world and give up your demands and expectations of existential perfectionism?

Robert L. Leahy.
Source: Robert L. Leahy.

This existential perfectionism underlies your complaints and lack of satisfaction. Rather than aim for the perfect life, aim for being flexible in living in the real world. Frustration comes with the territory. Everyone gets frustrated because life can be difficult; it takes effort and some disappointment to make progress. If you keep demanding that things go your way, you will make yourself miserable and alienate the people around you.

We often sound like Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, who views greed as good and thinks that what he wants is simply “more.” This false ambition makes life a series of goals that, once reached, are no longer satisfying. These receding reference points drive us to demand more. There is no contentment, and life is filled with dissatisfaction.

Existential perfectionism doesn’t mean you have high standards. It means you have impossible expectations. It’s up to you to shift from looking for perfection to embracing what is human, universal, and more than enough.

Existential perfectionism proves that in real life, demanding more means we think we have less. It adds to our regret because real outcomes are not perfect.

I asked a successful physician if he remembered a moment of real contentment. He said, “I was in medical school with my friends, and we were sitting outside watching the ducks. I felt so peaceful.”

I have never had a patient complain that they suffered from contentment.

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