It’s Okay To Be A Mess: The Downfalls of Perfectionism

As I scroll through social media, I am bombarded with pictures of beautiful, “perfect” skinny women and men. Even worse, all these beautiful people seem to be living their best lives, while I’m sitting alone in my apartment. All I can think is: why am I not like them? What's wrong with me? 

I have a feeling you can probably relate, because, in reality, people rarely have their lives perfectly put together. Due to the perfectionism that social media encourages, it's almost impossible for us to realize our true worth as imperfect beings.

Perfectionism as a behavior is the need to be or appear to be perfect. It has three subtypes: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism is when one imposes an unrealistic desire to be perfect on themselves. Other-oriented perfectionism is defined as imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on those around you. Lastly, socially prescribed perfectionism means perceiving unrealistic expectations of perfection from other people.

Perfectionist behavior is caused by several factors. One is internal pressure, such as the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgement, feelings of insecurity or inadequacy, or mental health issues such as OCD. There's also a social component, which arises from our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive as more successful than us. It is therefore no surprise that with the increased use of social media — platforms that provide endless opportunities for social comparison — there is an increase in perfectionism among young people. 

Perfectionism can have both positive and negative effects, depending on whether it’s healthy or toxic. Healthy perfectionism can be self-motivating, serving as inspiration to overcome obstacles and achieve success. Perfectionists who set high goals, have high standards, and are determined to achieve success are considered “adaptive perfectionists.” In contrast, toxic perfectionism causes people to focus on avoiding failure rather than achieving success, which can create a negative outlook on life.

According to research professor Brené Brown, toxic perfectionism is used by many people as a shield to protect themselves against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame. This kind of unhealthy perfectionism can lead to procrastination, all-or-none thinking, a tendency to avoid challenges, and toxic comparisons to others. Importantly, it can also cause depression, anxiety, obsession, compulsivity, loneliness, and a plethora of other mental health issues.

Thankfully, there are ways we can prevent the development of toxic perfectionism. The first step is to acknowledge it. Recognizing it as a behavior you suffer from allows you to address the problem and change. 

A great way to keep track of your perfectionist tendencies is to journal whenever perfectionist thoughts pop into your head. This will help you determine if there are any specific triggers that lead to these intrusive thinking processes. 

Next, try to focus on the positive — which can be tough, especially in our current social and political climate. A way to begin combating negative thoughts is to soften them by pairing them with positive ideas. For example, if you find yourself thinking, “wow, I really didn’t feel great about that test. I’m going to be a failure,” try to actively accompany it with a thought like, “I know I worked hard and will be able to address any lack of understanding with my professor.”

Lastly, alter your self-talk; critical self-talk attacks one’s personal traits and abilities. In reference to perfectionism, this kind of talk can look like: 

“If my team loses this game, I’m a failure.”

“I never have enough time to achieve my goals.”

“Brett doesn’t like me back because I’m not good enough.”

In contrast, positive self-talk empowers you to help yourself and be your own biggest fan. Examples of positive self-talk look like:

“I can only control how I play in this game. I’m going to do my best, and whether or not we win is not a direct reflection of my capabilities/”

“I have everything I need to achieve my goal.”

“It’s okay for me to have whatever feelings I have, just as it is okay for Brett to have whatever feelings he has. If these feelings don’t match, it's not a reflection of my worth.”

As you can see, positive self-talk allows you to accept what you can and cannot control, giving you an accurate outlook on what your achievable goals are. 

In the end, we all have imperfections — it’s human. And that’s okay! I love being a mess. It means that while I have expectations for myself, I don’t fall apart if I don’t meet them immediately. So, channel your ice cream-loving, clumsy, awkward, imperfect self, and be a mess with me. I promise, you’ll be happier if you do.