The Problem with Perfection
Society's expectations are pretty impossible, but nothing’s worse than the pressure we put on ourselves. Perfection is always looming like a thing we need to achieve, as if it’s as easy as getting an A+ in chem or first place in a volleyball match. The thing is, perfection doesn’t even exist. That doesn't stop us from wanting it, of course, but it’s not our fault. Just think about how many times you heard “practice makes perfect” on repeat growing up—at dance class, at piano lessons, even in the middle of handwriting lessons in the second grade.
“The myth of perfection is so harmful because it is so unattainable,” explains Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, Adolescent Psychologist and Dove Self-Esteem Expert. “Though in some ways teen girls know this, they still strive to achieve it. It becomes damaging, because girls often go through any length that they can to achieve the unachievable. Their self-confidence and self-esteem can be damaged in the process. As a result, they develop symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some may develop eating disorders. In their attempt to strive toward perfection, teen girls end up hurting themselves much more in the process.”
And it’s only gotten worse. Ten years ago, teen magazines were filled with beautiful images of impeccably Photoshopped models. But at least our brains understood that these photos had been obsessively touched-up by a team of professionals. Now we see photos—ostensibly candid—equally as glossy all over Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. Though most photos we share on social media show our best sides in the best lightning (and when all else fails, there’s always FaceTune), it’s still hard to reconcile what we look like on a tiny screen vs. what we look like IRL.
“In some ways, things have gotten harder with social media because it has amplified the drive for perfection,” explained Rachel Simmons, author and co-founder of Girls Leadership Institute. “Girls only show the things that they want people to see, which is an idealized version of themselves. It causes an avalanche of idealized images of other girls. They compare themselves, judge others, and compete with others. It makes girls feel they are not enough.”
But it’s not just about appearance. Perfectionism extends to everything: school, careers, relationships, even our social lives. “The essence of perfectionism is that you’ll never cross the finish line. It’s a game you can never win,” says Simmons. “It’s a loop of unhappiness and low self-worth, ultimately. You’ll never be perfect enough. That’s the whole point of perfection. Perfection is based on the belief that, ‘I am not okay as I am.’ One of the most important things a girl can do is be clear on why she is enough right now without trying to change herself in anyway.”
If telling yourself you’re enough isn’t enough, simply understanding your brain a little better can make a surprisingly major difference. “The first step, as with most things, is identifying that it is a problem,” said Dr. Hartstein. “The recognition that perfectionism is probably not going to happen has to be the first thing that one identifies and begins to accept. Once the problem is identified, a teen girl can start the process of making different choices and challenging the negative thoughts. Maybe her sense of perfection can be her own, based on acceptance of her own limitations and strengths.” Strive for your own definition of perfection—just don’t use the “P" word.