The discussion of testing even very young school children has been topical recently. We are also nearing the summer GCSE and A’Level exam period – and concepts of success and failure abound. It seems we live in a competitive world. We set up value systems where we rigidly grade, compare and measure our own and others’ worth. What do we understand by ‘successful’? How much money do I have? How thin am I? What promotion have I achieved at work? How many friends do I have on Facebook?

Counsellors in Coupleworks often see clients overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed. The bar is set high and the focus is on achieving fixed goals. People can get caught in a loop of the ‘must-do’ and ‘having-to-do’, to the extent that lives are exhausting and can lack balance. Problems can occur when things do not quite work out to plan and people can become judgementally self-focused and develop a harsh inner voice. They become their own worst critics with their sense of self-worth and self-esteem becoming increasingly fragile. Unhappy couples, too, often come into counselling when they get stuck in a negative, critical loop of relating.

The media sells visions of glossy perfection and we all hold an idea of a ‘good’ relationship. Couples can fear their relationship may be broken when it is not meeting these standards. When expectations are challenged, when a partner has a different style or opinion, it can feel frighteningly disappointing and a hostile, attacking pattern of interaction can emerge. Even the sexual relationship becomes ‘performance’ orientated and be judged ‘not-good-enough’.

Often a couple can become competitive about who feels the most abandoned, not cared for, not listened to, the most taken for granted. They keep count of the slights and the hurts until the loved partner becomes the one most resented. Compassion is driven underground.

In therapy, considering what a ‘good-enough’ relationship might be, can relax things to such an extent that concern and generosity can flourish. Creating a supportive, caring relationship means building empathy. It means the appreciation of each other as flawed, quirky, unique, and lovably different. The couple can then revel in feelings of being accepted, valued and safe.

The psychologist Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, says that ‘Getting unstuck is re-examining your values, recognising that your relationships are the most important things to help you feel happy’, and proposes that the secret of success is the ability to understand that mistakes and failure are not a catastrophe. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘I never lose. I either succeed or I learn.’ In order to manage our feelings of anxiety and vulnerability we need to explore and comprehend the dread. What really is the worst? Can we think laterally, more flexibly, and change and adapt? Gilbert compares it to judo where, in order to do well, we have to learn how to fall and roll with the punches. We, and our relationships, are often more special, valuable and resilient than we thought.

Kathy Rees