Perfect hair. Perfect body. Perfect grades. Perfect job. Perfect partner. Perfect life.
These are all things we’ve probably heard and most likely used at some point when discussing our aspirations and desires or maybe when moaning about the people in our life who seem to over-achieve at just about everything.
But have you ever stopped to think about what the word perfect actually means, what it does to our outlook on life and our emotional state?
The definition of perfect in the Oxford Dictionary is: ‘having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be’.
However, I’d be willing to bet that the sub-definition listed: ‘free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality; faultless’ is probably what most people resonate with when they apply the term to others or themselves.
Ever met someone who is ‘free from any flaw’? No, me either. So why do we live in a society where perfection is seen to be a positive aspiration and something we should all aim for? Having unrealistically high expectation of ourselves and others can be unrelentingly damaging and there are plenty of examples in our relationships, diets, writing, health, cleanliness and organisation, physical appearance (to name a few), where perfectionism can be just this.
In schools children are pressured to achieve and made to believe that if top marks aren’t attained that they will never amount to anything, let alone ‘god forbid’ get a decent job or be able to buy a house or a car! Mistakes are where we learn and can aim to improve for the future. Even the ‘red pen’ used to correct our work at school can be a mental reminder of failure, rather than identification for where we can improve and learn. Anxiety, depression and stress have all been identified in studies on school-aged teenagers, alongside a fear of failure, which might be partly attributed to schools needing to meet targets for grades and pushing that pressure onto students.
Social media does nothing to help the situation as carefully curated accounts on Instagram and Facebook only show what the person wants others to see. This completely disregards the everyday ups and downs we all experience, the battles with our self-confidence, disappointments and uncomfortable moments that come with being a human being. These realistic moments are entirely far removed from the ‘perfect lives’ we see in photos of skinny white women on beaches, sipping turmeric lattes or hitting the gym dressed in designer active wear. Social media can do terrible things for our confidence as we unconsciously compare ourselves to the tailored lives we see and desire what just isn’t true to life.
Levels of perfectionism have been shown to be higher in patients with diagnosed eating disorders also, which makes sense as sufferers desire to have the perfect body, diet and life. Clinical perfectionism, although having no widely accepted definition, incorporates the continual aim for the highest standards despite continued negative consequences. There have also been links made between increasing academic pressures and prevalence of eating disorders.
Societal and cultural pressures, at least in this country, to be a so-called ‘normal’ weight (just fyi there is no such thing, there is only what is the comfortable, easy to maintain weight for your own body) is basically perfection in a not-so-subtle disguise. This only reinforces disordered eating and ‘healthy eating’ practices which are entirely not healthy as often are hugely restrictive and can result in psychological deprivation, even leading to nutritional deficiencies.
Orthorexia, defined as having an unhealthy obsession with achieving a ‘pure’ diet, is at it’s simplest a desire to follow a perfect or ‘clean’ diet. Clinicians are more commonly recognising this life-sucking condition which is seemingly correlated with the ever-growing rise in misinformation about nutrition science (see our blogs on: the dangers of dichotomising food and diet’s don’t work)
Moving away from perfectionist thinking means trying to give up the ‘shoulds’ that we commonly use in everyday life, such as “I should eat the apple instead of the cake” or “I should have a company car by this stage in my life”. There are no all-or-nothings in life and getting comfortable with the shades of grey that come with being ‘just OK’ at something can be very liberating. Making mistakes should be celebrated as these give us opportunities to learn something about ourselves and grow.
If perfection means sacrificing contentment, happiness and well-being then count me the fuck out. Join the anti-perfection revolution and let’s stop trying to be something that just doesn’t exist.
“They tell you that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you that practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds” – Winston Churchill
For the keen-readers and evidence checkers amongst you:
BBC News (2018). Social media adds to secondary school ‘pressure’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-42563801/social-media-adds-to-secondary-school-pressure
BBC News (2018). The German entrepenuers celebrating their mistakes. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43287225.
Department for Education (2016). Longitudinal Study of Young People in England cohort 2: health and wellbeing at wave 2. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/longitudinal-study-of-young-people-in-england-cohort-2-wave-2
Grazia (2018). My perfect Instagram life hid my battle with Orthorexia. Available at: https://graziadaily.co.uk/life/real-life/wellness-influencer-instagram-orthorexia/
The Guardian (2015). Orthorexia: when healthy eating turns against you. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/sep/26/orthorexia-eating-disorder-clean-eating-dsm-miracle-foods
verywellmind (2017). Perfectionism in Eating Disorders. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/perfectionism-in-anorexia-nervosa-1138391