It seems like a lot more frequently of the conversation I hear from students about the difficulty of their life is around the concept of perfection. I find this pretty troubling that so many young people struggle with perfection, or rather, their struggle with the fact that they are not perfect themselves. Like lemmings, I am seeing more and more students follow this devastating path toward self-destruction.
I recall a difficult time in my twenties when I was feeling desperation over the weight of my short-comings. I was tormented by my inability to meet my own definition of success: I just broke up with my boyfriend of 4 years, I was transitioning to life after college, I was uncertain of my future, I had little meaningful contribution to the world. Aside from bring beers to the thirsty at the sports bar where I was employed, I unknowingly created a life void of purpose. I sought out empty solutions that were temporary fixes to my need to be better than I was. I didn’t know it at the time but this was my first real adult war for my life as I struggled with the burden depression that was fueled by my need for perfection.
At the time, my older sister provided me with a metaphor that that has stuck with me and has been formative in my understanding of myself. I called her crying, as I regularly did during that time in my life, seeking some assurance that my suffering was not going to last forever. She told me about a bear in a zoo that was depressed because the bear lacked any meaningful work. The bear was provided with all the comforts that any reasonable bear could ever want-- safety, food, shelter, conjugal visits – but the bear was showing signs of depression: restlessness, lethargy, self-harm, disengagement. It wasn’t until the zoo keepers started hiding food that the bear began to change its behavior and re-engage. Animal behaviorists attributed the bear’s change in behavior to a developed sense of self-worth derived through meaningful work.
This metaphor gave me some insight into suffering and the active role that I played in my own suffering in failing to engage in meaningful purpose and work. I passively created my torment and I could actively create a better quality of being.
Over twenty years ago my “perfection destination mindset” was challenged by my sister and her bear story. Today, there are a lot of theories around why this phenomenon is so rampant with so many young people. Some people think that social media is the main contributor to the perfection myth as people tend to post and curate seemingly perfect lives. Others think that the mainstream education of psychology has enabled an entire generation to be able to articulate suffering with more specific language. Others point to a moral void that has developed in western religion because of a politically manufactured schism between science and faith. Regardless of the cultural factors, perfectionism is a serious problem that contributes to anxiety and depression.
So how can we address this crisis of self-worth? I have tried a number of strategies with my students that have been effective strategies in my own life. Here is a SIMPLIFIED list of things that I share with my students about the dangers of perfection, how to combat perfection, and a few mantras that can get you through the pain of imperfection:
THE VALUE OF SUFFERING!
ADJUST OUTCOME EXPECTATIONS!
BE A KIND FRIEND TO YOURSELF!
JOURNEY VS. DESTINATION!
WORK TOWARD CONFIDENCE!
I will be expanding on each of these 10 strategies to challenge your mindset about perfectionism over the next few weeks, providing context and tangible applications to create a more peaceful and content human experience.
Until next time, I want to leave you with a place to start your journey deconstructing your current understanding of perfectionism by employing # 1: CURIOUSITY. Meta-cognition (thinking about your thinking) can reveal your perception of perfectionism as a myth or a construct. Delve deeper and reflect how has perfectionism helped or harmed you? Try to think of ways that perfectionism might be a lie. What/who motivates/perpetuates those lies of perfectionism? When have you achieved perfection? When have you failed to measure up? Who establishes the definition of perfection as you understand it as a concept? What is the definition of perfection? Generate more questions from your questions! This kind of reflective effort might provide you with some insight about the distance between your actions and your beliefs.