Experts say the endless pursuit of perfection is having a negative impact on our wellbeing. Perhaps the secret is to enjoy where you are right now. without the need strive for more
It starts during a bit of late night Instagramming of Copenhagen apartments.
First you’re scrolling through trailing houseplants, then screengrabbing Morroccan Berber rugs, and before you know it its 2am and you’re staring at photos of a stranger’s Italian wedding, making a list of things you need to make you life perfect.
Whether it’s chasing a promotion, buying our own flat, boosting our Instagram following, or finding the partner of our dreams, our goal-driven culture means chasing ‘perfect’ has become the norm.
Psychologist Dr Becky Spelman says that this quest for perfection isn’t just in our heads, it’s also pervasive throughout our culture.
“Today’s competitive world has led to us developing perfectionist traits,” she says. “It starts in school where you are rewarded for pushing yourself to meet targets.
“While it is healthy to have focus, you can put yourself under enormous pressure trying to attain unrealistic goals, whether that’s at work or in realtionships. This can become obsessive and unhealthy because you are concentrating not on something you have, but on a deficit.” Endlessly striving for more means we can never feel satisfied, and our ‘dream life’ remains frustratingly – and permanently – out of reach. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology found that women are more likely than men to experience feelings of inadequacy, and a larger proportion felt they failed to meet their own high standards.
According to Dr Spelman, feelings of inadequacy are intensified by the ‘compare and despair’ bred on social media. We are a generation who sees too much, with research showing we are exposed to more images of supposedly ‘perfect’ women in one day than our grandmothers saw in a lifetime.
Charlotte, 30, says that’s a part of the pressure she feels to improve her life: “It feels like everyone on Instagram is more attractive than I am, better dressed, having more fun, and getting more promotions. I don’t know why I follow some of the people I do. It’s as if I like tormenting myself.” Rationally we know that influencers are manufactured and monetised, yet Dr Spelman says that in our 360-degree feedback loop it’s difficult not to measure yourself against them. “It’s easy to lose your balance and feel sad about not having their seemingly perfect life. But desperately trying to ‘keep up’ can come at the expense of your mental health”.
There is widespread agreement among experts that perfectionism is harmful, and studies have linked it to the rise in anxiety, depression, anxiety, drug addiction and even an increased suicide risk. After British snowboarder Ellie Soutter killed herself on her 18th birthday last month, her dad Tony said the pressure she felt and fear of “not letting anybody down” contributed to her death.
But how can you step away from the pressure to be perfect? Ten years ago it was enough to get yourself to work wearing halfclean clothes. Now every aspect of our lives is public, with social media allowing us to measure ‘success’ through views and likes in ways never previously possible.
In response, the growing anti-perfectionism trend is helping to re-frame the way we look at perceived ‘failures’. Recent bestsellers The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson and Sarah Knight’s You Do You: A No-F**ks-Given Guide promote wearing our imperfections on our sleeves, as well as having the freedom to consider alternatives to what we had planned.
Katherine Ormerod is a former fashion journalist who says she “spent years putting on a great show that my life was pretty perfect, and it was exhausting. Then my husband left me when I was 29 and I couldn’t fake it anymore.
“All of my plans fell down like dominoes. But once you come out the other side of something like that you realise that amazing things can come from failure or from going off your planned course.” In Ormerod’s forthcoming book Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life she speaks to influencers who reveal what their lives are really like away from the glossy hair and #AD bikini endorsements.
“Often people don’t want to admit any weakness or vulnerability, but of course they struggle with the same things we all do,” says Omerod. “Life isn’t all beaches, parties and designer handbags.” Dr David Hamilton agrees that we live in a culture that glorifies success, and says the antidote to endless comparison is to look for positive, inspirational people to follow.
“We think ‘when I make my flat look perfect or get that perfect boyfriend then I’ll finally feel that I am ‘enough’”, he says. “It’s vital to stop viewing yourself as ‘less than’.
Wherever you are now is good enough, without any need for a new path taking you somewhere ‘better’”.
In the 1950s the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the phrase ‘good-enough mother’ to try to relieve the pressure mums felt to be perfect, and there is growing agreement that this ‘good enough’ concept might be the key to shaping a new way for us to live happy lives.
The central message of Haemin Sunim’s upcoming book Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection is accepting yourself instead of constantly needing to prove your worth or ability. Last year you couldn’t move for books about lagom – the Swedish concept of ‘enough’ – now we’re looking east to the Japanese art of finding long lasting contentment.
Erin Longhurst is the author Japonisme which explores finding fulfilment in appreciating life’s quieter moments rather than getting distracted by what you don’t have. “Perfection is an unattainable and unkind goal,” says Longhurst. “Instead, in Japan the focus is on finding your ikigai, or purpose. This is what makes you happy, and it’s different for everyone – for some its family, for others its being creative. It’s not about how much money you make, or what status you are trying to attain, but what you value. Being able to find that clarity and purpose is empowering.” Of course, we all have hopes and plans for the future, so it’s not about digging up the yellow brick road completely but making sure you step off it to enjoy what you already have. Dr Spelman says the secret is to be realistic, self-aware, and flexible – in case life unexpectedly takes you on a different path.
“There are so many things we have no control over,” she says. “Be kind to yourself and try to focus on the process rather than the end goal. That way you set yourself up for the best chance of happiness.
Perfectionists can never be good enough and are doomed to fail, so stop pursuing and start being.” Omerod is hopeful that the antiperfectionism movement is enacting change and helping people feel happier. “I do think things are changing,” she says. “Now perfectionism on social media makes you roll your eyes, you feel sorry for that person and all the effort they have to put in to keep up pretence.
“You have to steel yourself to admit things go wrong and to follow a different path to the one you’d planned, but its hugely liberating. If I was still putting on my fake social media show there’s no way I’d be as happy as I am now. Failure is part of success, and a happiness might actually look very different from what you presumed it would.”
Dr. Becky Spelman
Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life by Katherine Omerod
How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body by David Hamilton PhD
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