Perhaps more than any other medium of communication it is social media which has amplified our need to be models of perfection as we compare our own lives to the edited versions of reality that we observe on various social media platforms .
It has been said that we live in an age of perfection where many feel pressure to lead unattainable perfect lives, the pursuit of which can be personally damaging. It is believed that Millenials and Gen Z are are most vulnerable in this regard because they are digital and social media natives who can easily blend their digital and physical worlds.
The impact of social media on self-identity is now regarded as being significant. The constant exposure to images of perfection on social media can affect personal identity and self-esteem by creating impossible demands on young people, in particular, to aim for perfection in their own lives.
Striving for excellence is admirable but striving for perfection is regarded as being delusionary because it’s impossible to achieve.It has been said that happiness is not to be found in perfection and life experiences will confirm that. Striving for excellence is fine and can be motivating; striving for perfection is demoralising because it is a target which can never be reached. You can achieve personal excellence but you can never achieve personal perfection.
Perfectionism can be addictive in itself and it is now believed to be a contributing factor in other addiction types. Perfectionists loathe imperfections and if that loathing is self-directed it can have serious consequences for the individuals concerned.
Perfectionism is entirely about trying to achieve flawlessness- an unattainable goal. Humans are imperfect and our world is imperfect yet some of us are addicted to perfectionism which can the root cause of eternal unhappiness.
Those of us who strive for excellence (not perfection) are trying to do our best. We can accept the risk of failure because we know that we are not perfect. As Voltaire once said; Perfect is the enemy of good. We can embrace our imperfections as we strive for continuous improvement. We want to be the best we can be as we strive to be excellent at what we do. Excellence does not require perfection.
This will not do for the perfectionist who seeks perfection as an outcome and sees all else as failure. There is no middle ground and there are no grey areas. It is either perfection or failure. All must be perfect to be acceptable.
A brief comparison between those who seek excellence and those who seek perfection highlights critical differences in attitudes and behaviours and might help you to clarify if you belong to one or other category.
Research tells us a lot about the differences between those who strive for excellence ( attainable) and perfectionism (unattainable). Seekers of excellence focus on realistic attainable goals. Seekers of perfection are constantly disappointed because their goals are unattainable.
Those who seek excellence tend to learn from failure and try to improve. Mistakes do not define such people and they are open to constructive criticism. Perfectionists, however, can be devastated by failure and can find it difficult to bounce back, They dwell on their mistakes and do not handle criticism well.
Those who strive for excellence tend to have a more compassionate inner voice which is more understanding than critical. Most tend to be happy with themselves and who they are. Perfectionists, however, are massively self-critical because they define their identities by their achievements. Their inner voice is self-critical and perfectionists therefore do not often have inner peace. Their self-worth is dependent on performing perfectly.
While excellence is about high standards, perfectionism is about unrealistic standards. Perfectionists tend to link their own performance to their sense of self. Constant failure results in low self-esteem, anxiety and even depression. They can often feel guilt, shame and anger because of their perceived failures (which is everything less than unattainable perfection).
Extreme perfectionism prevents people from being their best because they hold unrealistic expectations of themselves. They seek the affirmation of others and feel they will be judged harshly when they fail. They usually believe they must display perfection to win approval. Research tells us that perfectionism arises from anxiety and self-esteem issues. For such people perfectionism is an obsession.
You might fall into this category or you might be a “healthy” perfectionist who tries to achieve personal excellence but not personal perfection. In this case your self-esteem is not conditional on achievement as you see a bigger picture rather than being fixated on achieving perfection and external recognition. Your focus is on progress rather than perfection.
Leo Tolstoy was correct when he said; If you look for perfection you will never be content. Experts in this area tell us that perfectionism is linked to mental well-being. Perfectionists are overly self-critical as their self-worth is linked to unattainable perfection or failure. Chasing constant perfection, as if nothing else matters, leads to feelings of failure, despair and self-loathing. Aiming for flawless outcomes is to live in a world of fantasy.
Yet advertising and social media bombards us with messages of needing to be perfect. Younger generations are now increasingly suffering personality disorders and psychological ill-health because the idea of perfection has become so pervasive in society.
The subtle advertising and social message to look flawless, lead flawless lives and give flawless performances has given rise to what is known as socially prescribed perfectionism . This refers to the tendency for such persons to really believe that others expect perfection from them.Chasing perfection only further enhances a feeling of inadequacy as the chase inevitably ends in failure.
Advertising, social media and peer pressure contributes greatly to this type of socially prescribed perfectionism and many of us need to heed the advice of Harriet Braiker; Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for success demoralises you. Striving for continuous improvement leading to excellence is very worthwhile but striving for perfection is a worthless pursuit leading to despair. You don’t need to be perfect to be excellent.
Jane Fonda has very sensibly advised: It took me a long time to realise we are not meant to be perfect; we’re meant to be whole. Many of us may have tendencies that want us to seek perfection in what we do or how we look. At an earlier stage in my own working career I was very unhappy with my own work output and worked harder and longer trying to “outwork” my work colleagues. I was unhappy and making others unhappy but eventually I controlled these impulses and regained some equilibrium in my life.
If you are trapped in a perfectionist mindset you need to be honest about what really matters to you. You need to adopt strategies to create a different more satisfying life. You do not need to be perfect to be happy; you do not need to be perfect to appreciate yourself; you do not need to be perfect to be successful.
( Photo Fabian Muller,Unsplash)
Imperfections make us human and all humans are imperfect beings leading imperfect lives. World religions have recognised this fact for centuries. Once we accept that happiness is not to be found in perfection we can learn to move on and really mend our lives. We were born to be real, not to be perfect.
A really important personal objective should be to take care of ourselves and our mental wellbeing. Try to replace your self-critical inner voice by an inner voice which is far more compassionate and understanding. Being kind to yourself is about being your own best friend.
Perfection should never be our ultimate goal; doing your best is far more rewarding.Strive always to be authentic rather than perfect. To do so is to be honest with yourself and others. Be the authentic you rather than a fictional ideal you. Seek to be human rather than be perfect. Embrace your imperfections as they are the mark of your authenticity.
( feature photo by Ricardo Annandale, Unsplash)