By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Editor, myWestman.ca
I used to strive for perfection. I don’t anymore — not all the time at least. There are a lot of times good enough will do.
Intentional or not, everywhere, we face pressure for perfection; be it getting perfect grades, being the perfect child/parent/partner/friend, leading the perfect life. It’s baked into the core of our experience, right from the fairy tales and Disney movies we consume at a young age.
Today, the quest for perfection is everywhere and nowhere is it more obvious than on social media. While we used to see glossy perfection a step or two removed, in magazines and movies, now we are seeing images of perfection from our friends and family. It’s not just celebrities advancing a culture of perfection, but people we actually know, sharing images and stories of them #LivingTheirBestLife.
We know it’s bogus, it’s a curated version of life. It might be one good image out of 50 or one picture perfect moment (probably staged to some degree) out of a day of mundane, or even horrible. It’s the highlight reel. We all do it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get sucked into others’ posts.
Last year, the American Psychological Association released a study titled “Perfectionism is Increasing Over Time.” It was the first study to examine generational differences in perfectionism and looked at data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students, from the late 1980s to 2016. Defining perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve, along with being overly critical of oneself and others,” the study found the more recent college students reported higher scores on each type of perfectionism than earlier generations. Comparing 1989 to 2016, the self-oriented perfectionism score (an irrational desire to be perfect) rose by 10 percent, socially prescribed perfectionism (perceiving excessive expectations from others) rose by 33 per cent and other-oriented perfectionism (placing unrealistic standards on others) rose by 16 percent.
The impact of these rising levels of perfectionism isn’t surprising; the study noted that they might be a factor driving the higher reported levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts reported today, compared to a decade ago.
We may be tempted to shrug this off by saying people are putting too much pressure on themselves, but that’s a bit of a cop-out. We all expect more and are all active participants in the rising level expectations, whether we are conscious of it or not. The study’s authors urged schools and policymakers, in particular, to change the culture that fosters competition among young people in order to preserve good mental health.
I’m not suggesting that we just start floating through life — that’s not a good solution, for anyone. What we need to do is recognize that perfection in all areas is entirely impossible. Period. What do we do with that knowledge? We determine the areas in which perfection is required, and the areas in which good enough will do.
Good enough might still be great, and it will depend on the situation. Good enough for a brain surgeon is a pretty high bar, making a dinner for your family that’s good enough will likely leave you more time to actually spend with them.
Again, I’m not advocating a philosophy of not trying, merely one of evaluating expectations, setting a goal and working towards it. We only have so much time, money and energy, we need to invest our effort in the areas we need and want to. Today’s pressures mean that something has to give, make sure it isn’t your mental well being.