Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

The Joy of Not-knowing: A Tonic for Perfectionism

This week's blog post has been written by University Chaplain, Revd Dr Harriet Harris.

Award-winning playwright and campaigner Sarah Woods swaps the pressures of needing to know and get everything right, for the joy of not-knowing. This really is a healing tonic for perfectionism. I discuss the virtues of not-knowing with Sarah in The Chaplaincy of Joyful Abandon podcast this month, and I’m blogging about it here for everyone who has a perfectionist within them!

Really, I think that perfectionism is a pandemic, though we have no government guidelines to warn us of its symptoms, or to tell us how to stop it from spreading. I would love to give every student I meet vaccines and adequate ventilation to protect them from it, and the same for every staff member, parent, son, daughter, sibling, colleague and friend. At its most virulent, perfectionism is a killer – when fear of failing or the exhaustion of not feeling good-enough, takes the ultimate toll. In milder forms, it has us push ourselves really hard, without allowing us to feel satisfaction.

If this is all sounding very familiar, it may be helpful to consider that perfectionism is not an identity that need engulf or define us. Rather it is more like a subpersonality, of which we all have several – think of the Disney film Inside Out. If you have an inner perfectionist, this mini-self will motivate you, and have you pay attention to detail, which are both good qualities that serve you well and have probably got you far. But your perfectionist also ties your sense of self-worth to the level of your achievement, and is afraid of getting anything wrong. Here are some other ways your inner perfectionist may show up.

Nuances of perfectionism:

  • Wanting everything to run smoothly, so that nobody gets unhappy, so that nobody judges you, and everyone will be ok
  • Serial procrastinating, because of  wanting more time to get it right, and fear of getting it wrong
  • A constant inner narrative, in which achievements, progress and status are your daily measure of self-worth
  • Impatience because you thought you could achieve something more quickly
  • Striving for, and thriving on, external validation, where your sense of self-worth comes from outside, not from within you.
  • Second-guessing yourself or going back on decisions once they have been made
  • Not celebrating achievements, although you’ve worked hard for them, and going straight on to the next thing
  • Giving up when things get hard, and moving on to something you think will be easier to achieve
  • Not getting started on a piece of work, for fear you will not do it well enough
  • Thinking the responsibility is all on your shoulders
  • Avoiding uncomfortable emotions in yourself, and wanting to avoid them in others too, imagining that you will have caused other people to be upset with you.

More could be added to this list, but that is already a lot, and we already get the sense of how exhausting perfectionism can be, and how it can prevent us from living our lives to the full.


Painting by John Ruskin called "Dawn, Coniston". In the foreground of the painting there is a body of blue water, above are two hills.
Dawn, Coniston by John Ruskin 1873 Wikimedia Commons

Calming perfectionist fears

If we were to ask the perfectionist within us what they are afraid of, their fear might sound something like this: ‘If I can’t concentrate on my essay, I’ll get behind, then I’ll screw up my degree, then I won’t get a job. My parents will be disappointed in me, I’ll feel ashamed, no-one will want to know me, and I’ll end up dying alone under a bridge somewhere.’ It’s often no use saying ‘good enough is ok’ to your perfectionist, because they won’t believe it. Instead they need calming and soothing, they need thanking for their service, and they need to be taken out of the driving seat of your life, and allowed to be passengers who can give input but not take the wheel.

And we who carry a perfectionist within us benefit from both external and internal retuning. The external retuning involves acknowledging and fostering our positive connections with others, so that we experience acceptance regardless of what we achieve, and also so that we learn that not everything depends on us.

What about the inner retuning? 


Painting by John Ruskin called Fragments of the Alps. In the foreground are some large grey and orange stones. Behind the stones are some tall trees and the mountains of the Alps
John Ruskin Fragments of the Alps Wikimedia Commons


The joy of not-knowing

Discovering the joy of not-knowing is one of the best kinds of inner re-tuning we can give our perfectionist. In the Joy and Vitality of Not-Knowing podcast, Sarah Woods says that she has come to enjoy not-knowing; it is a huge relief from feeling you have to prove yourself, and from the inauthenticity of making things up when you are asked a question that you don’t know how to answer.

If instead of feeling that we ought to know, or that we have to hold and defend a position, we can come in with an ‘innocent eye’, to use John Ruskin’s phrase, then we can enjoy the process of learning. We can also see more truly who or what is before us, and engage more vitally with life around us.  These insights are similar to what Zen Buddhists refer to as the ‘beginner’s mind’, though it is Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and polymath, on whom Sarah draws, along with latest research in neuroscience and the predictive brain.

When Ruskin taught the elements of drawing, he taught a level of engagement and attentiveness that asks us to set aside what we might previously have thought we knew, about what a stone or a mountain looks like, or grass in sunlight. Sometimes our ‘knowing’ gets in the way of our learning, and of deeply attending. And it is in deeply attending that we feel so very alive.

John Ruskin, Stones of Venice
John Ruskin, Stones of Venice, Wikimedia Commons.jpg

We can choose Ruskin’s innocent-eye engagement, as a practice. For example, Sarah talks about sitting with and learning from her ‘rescue’ dog, Moira, for several months before trying to do any formal training with her. 

We may at times feel stuck, and Sarah says that when this happens she re-engages with the process – the process of not-knowing, of looking with an innocent eye. I love this, because it means there is always a road open to us, and it is one of deeper encounter and experience, and of on-going learning. If we do not know, then we do not need to be right. We do not have to prove ourselves and expend lots of energy on defending ourselves. Not-knowing is not about being vague, but about being in process, and being in process is being alive.

Listen here, to the Joy and Vitality of Not-Knowing, with Sarah Woods. Sarah’s works include Borderland, Powerout, an adaptation of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and of Jane Goodall's classic In the Shadow of Man. She is currently dramatising The Limits to Growth report for BBC Radio 4.