Never good enough?
The fine line between striving to be better and perfectionism
By Nancy O’Donnell
For many, the beginning of a new year is marked by the hope — openly declared or hidden within — to begin anew, to do better than last year, follow through, be more consistent.
But these days it seems that striving to do a little better has become so competitive that it’s burdensome. We are faced with a generation of young people who “can’t fail.”
On college campuses, the number of students being treated for anxiety or depression has skyrocketed over the past few years. Recent research reported a dramatic increase in self-harm among “tween” girls (ages 10–14) between 2009 and 2015. A YouTube video that went viral last summer, entitled “Why am I not good enough?” is by an 8th grader who uses artistic narration as a way to describe what the experience of a middle school girl is like today: never feeling quite “good enough.”
This constant striving that never satisfies, never “makes it,” never gives you a break, seems to characterize the lives of young people today. Some of the consequences are the statistics cited above.
It would appear that we have created a culture where failure is to be avoided at any cost, an impossible goal given our human condition.
In the academic world this has sometimes led to grade inflation, and faculty struggle to find an appropriate response to the panic a grade of B can provoke in a student, because they consider it a failure.
Many would call a lot of issues simply small bumps in the road, but when magnified by anxiety that distorts perception, they propel students to become so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.
Striving to improve
According to most psychological theories, striving to improve is deeply imbedded in human nature. It is considered an impulse or a desire and frequently is seen as an aspect of our goal to reach self-fulfillment.
There is however, the danger of falling into an unhealthy form of perfectionism that leads to unhappiness. People looking for perfectionism hold themselves to impossibly high standards. They think what they do is never good enough.
Some people mistakenly believe that perfectionism is a healthy motivator, but that’s not the case. Perfectionism can make you feel unhappy with your life. It can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm.
Eventually, it can also lead you to stop trying to succeed and can interfere with your quality of life, affecting your personal relationships, education or work.
Striving to do your best in college or at work is an admirable trait. While a healthy will to excel or having high performance standards and expectations reflect a desirable personality trait, the perfectionist takes the will to excel to an extreme and irrational level.
What makes the difference between a healthy desire to do our best and the unhealthy need for perfectionism?
It appears that when self-improvement, striving for perfection becomes focused solely on self without consideration of others, it is more likely to take on those characteristics that, in the end, become obstacles to success.
Unfortunately, our competitive, individualistic culture tends to encourage this kind of perfectionism and is taking a growing toll on our interpersonal relationships.
Kenneth Gergen, in his book The relational being, speaks of the price we have paid in our society by defining our identity with individualism. By adhering to a belief that each one needs to be independent and self-sufficient, we have created a society of isolated individuals, who remain fundamentally unknown to one another.
In this kind of environment, it means that the person next to me very likely is in competition with me for the same prize; he or she could stand in my way of achieving my place in the sun.
In a global, digital world, the number of people of whom I am aware who are in competition with me has increased exponentially, and with that the number of ways in which I can fail.
Is there a way out of this situation? How can we be true to our innate, honest desire to improve ourselves and want the same for those around us? Finding a balance isn’t easy.
I know a strikingly beautiful young woman who, when she was in her early teens, was being trained to become a model. One day, as she was preparing for a show, she was helping some of the other girls to prepare before taking care of herself. Her agent pulled her aside and told her that she had to always put herself first if she wanted to succeed in the world of modelling. Even more, she had to work so that the others would fail.
It was an exciting career possibility, and everyone told her she had what it takes. But she quit. She knew she would never be truly happy making others fail.
Perhaps the first challenge, then, is to resist the messages we receive from society and at times, even from our families. And we need to form children to reject the belief that in order to be a success, I have to be “better than” those around me.
Nature at times can be God’s messenger. I heard this thought in the Focolare spirituality of communion: each individual star in the sky is beautiful, but when stars combine to form a constellation, what they display together is more beautiful than their individual beauty. Each one acquires qualities that render it brighter and more resplendent.
Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that concern for the growth and progress of others may bring about similar results for us. By viewing the other as an opportunity instead of a competitor, our anxiety about our own performance lessens.
Less anxiety leads to inner tranquility which can increase our ability to appreciate our strengths and what we have to offer others. Then we can be open to the gifts others offer us and, consequently, our own shortcomings become less crippling.
We lose the obsession of not being good enough, because together we keep exploring ways to be better together, reaching our full potential without fear.
Nancy O’Donnell has a doctorate in psychology and teaches in Loppiano, Italy.
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