We live in a society that is increasingly all or nothing. Either we’re a total success or we’ve failed miserably—not much wiggle room. And with the proliferation of social media, the pressure to have a perfect life has never been greater. Seeing a constant stream of happy-face images from friends and family can make your own life seem pretty ordinary by comparison. How do you congratulate yourself on finally getting your carpets cleaned and finding a good math tutor for your kid when it looks like everyone you know is busy inking book deals, drinking mojitos in Costa Rica and packing their junior Einsteins up for Harvard?
“The tendency for people to present themselves in the best possible light—looking great, having an amazing time—can make the rest of us feel inadequate,” says Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto. It’s the same principle that applies to images in regular media, which, he says, have a long-established link to problems associated with perfectionism such as depression, negative body image and anxiety-based disorders. Minneapolis psychologist Thomas S. Greenspon, author of Moving Past Perfect: How Perfectionism May Be Holding Back Your Kids (and You!) and What You Can Do About It, agrees: “To the extent that social media reflect a tidying up of personal experience for presentation to others, a perfectionistic person will accept the display as reality, compare him- or herself to this and feel doomed.”
Some characteristics of perfectionism are healthy, like having high standards, knowing your priorities, being well organized with your time and feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. But perfectionism can become unhealthy if it distorts your view of success. “It’s very conditional now,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “It’s always, ‘If I looked like a movie star,’ ‘If I were a millionaire,’ ‘If I were married … then I’d be perfect.’
If you’ve done something 90 percent right, but obsess about the 10 percent that wasn’t quite as right, that’s a sign your perfectionist tendencies may be in overdrive. Being overly focused on achieving nonexistent “perfection” can hold you back in profound ways and prevent you from living a full and balanced life. Remember, aiming for perfection is not the same as aiming for excellence. “So many people base their core worth on outside events and other people, and that sets up this striving for perfection,” Lombardo says. “And then when something goes wrong it feels like everything is wrong. Perfectionists think if this thing I did is a failure then I’m a failure too.”
If social media adds to the pressure we feel to be perfect, age piles on even more. If you're in midlife, you may feel you're at a point where others expect you to do everything right. Shouldn’t you know by know how to be fitter, wealthier and happier? Whether or not that’s the reality, “it still causes people to put a lot of extra stress and pressure on themselves,” says Nikki Martinez, a psychologist who treats perfectionism and anxiety.
If you’re in midlife, you may feel others expect you to do everything right. ”It causes people to put a lot of extra stress and pressure on themselves,”
Happily, you can halt perfectionist behavior and live a fuller life. First, says Lombardo, “Stop the all-or-nothing thinking.” If you receive critical feedback at work, for example, avoid making it a judgment about your entire professional worth. “It’s not failure; it’s data,” she says. “Depersonalize it and look at mistakes as an opportunity to grow using valuable information.”
Second, try this activity: List three ways in which you can aim for excellence—not perfection—this week. Be sure to congratulate yourself when you’ve achieved them. (Then make next week’s list!)
Third, become your own best friend. Lombardo says that one surefire way to stop letting your drive for perfection beat you down is to shore up your self-esteem. You can do that by letting your values, not external feedback, drive your belief in yourself. Start by establishing three to five values that are most important to you and apply them to your life, says Lombardo. “For example, if you value family, can you try and have breakfast together one morning a week? Or volunteer as a family, even if it’s just once a year? That will make you feel good about yourself because you are doing things that are in line with your values,” she says. “And that’s much better than perfect.”
Finally, learn to ignore images in mainstream and social media that present the world as one big happy dance. "Family photos will rarely if ever depict family fights, or depressed moods or impending divorce, or any of the typical difficulties we might be having with others,” says Greenspon. “It’s understandable to look at what someone has posted somewhere and to compare ourselves to what we think we are seeing. Again, for perfectionistic people the default assumption is that they should be able to do better, or be better.” Counter those images by reminding yourself that, in reality, life is lived between all-and-nothing. Advises Richard Winter, professor of applied theology and counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary, “Surround yourself with people who are honest about their own mistakes and difficulties, even if on the surface they appear to have a perfect life.”