The perfect bikini body, the perfect grade, the perfect boyfriend – strive for it and it shall be yours. Nice theory, but unfortunately, striving for perfection may just drive you further and further away from it.
In fact, research shows perfectionists are more likely to suffer from chronic stress and low self-esteem, less likely to have a healthy sex life, more likely to show anger and frustration, and they’re also more likely to die early, and suffer from heart disease. And it’s a problem that’s on the increase.
Social media rise
According to a study from the University of Bath Department for Health, and York St John University, UK, in the last few decades the rates of perfectionism in the British population have risen up to 33% higher than they were previously.
The cause of this rise in wanting to be perfect can be partly blamed on the fact that nowadays, we know so much more about how other people are doing. Just a few decades ago it would have been near impossible to compare your strength lifting abilities with some kettlebell-lugging woman from Latvia or the flatness of your belly with a Venezuelan beauty queen.
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Now, though, with Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and the rest, you’ve got an unrelenting exposure to people more “perfect” than you in a multitude of ways. In fact, this sharing of information has resulted in new types of perfection for us to aim for, ones you maybe didn’t even know you should aim for until the Hive Mind out there told you so.
Now you think you need a thigh gap (where your inner thighs don’t touch when you’re standing), an ab crack (the line running vertically down your abdominals) and you may even try the collarbone challenge (where you balance coins on your collarbone) to see if your bones are perfectly positioned, too.
Has this made us more beautiful, fitter or more perfect? Clearly not. While the concept of “thinspiration” could be celebrated as a way to fight back against growing levels of obesity worldwide, it simply doesn’t work. This leaves more people even further from their goals. And this is because striving for perfection is by its very definition, impossible.
Is perfection stopping us from achieving?
You’d think that logical and evidence-based scientists, might be immune to the disease of seeking perfection, but they’re not. According to research from Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, psychology professors who were perfectionists published fewer papers and even worse, the ones they did tended to have less impact. Bath University’s Dr. Thomas Curran (probably not a perfectionist himself!) looked into the subject of perfectionism in the general population and together with his colleagues, came up with three different types.
Self-oriented perfectionists attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations and are punitive in self-evaluations. Socially prescribed perfectionism is when it’s perceived to come from others, so they feel as though others judge them harshly and they must display perfection to secure approval. Finally, other-oriented perfectionism is when a person expects perfection from others around them, evaluating them and imposing unrealistic standards.
If you’re not sure whether those types of perfection apply, answer these: Do you procrastinate because you want to do things “just right”? Do you binge on junk food because you’ve cracked under pressure/stress? Do you spend an inordinate amount of time getting ready to go out or for work? Do you avoid lifting certain weights or using machines at the gym because you’re not 100% certain how to do them with perfect form?
Of course, we all put off tasks every now and again, pig out on ice cream and go through several wardrobe changes before heading out on a big date. And yes, we’ve all side-stepped an elliptical machine that’s hard to use. But if you find yourself regularly behaving like this, you could have a problem. Because by striving for perfection, you’re actually trying to avoid the reality of your imperfections and that’s not just unrealistic, it’s unhealthy.
Consider this – when you’re faced with two paths, chances are you think you choose the one you’d like to walk down, when in fact human psychology works a little differently – it’s far more likely you choose the path based on which you’d like to avoid the most. This means you’re actually moving in the opposite direction of things you want to avoid. Where does this leave us with perfection? Well, it means that if you’re constantly striving for it, you’re trying to avoid something that really bothers you – and that’s imperfection. So your attitude towards yourself, that you’re imperfect, is what drives you to try and be perfect.
Without realizing it, you view imperfection as being unpleasant, weak, and just plain wrong. But the problem is, you guessed it, you are imperfect and always will be, no matter how hard you train, how skinny you get, how many work contracts you score. You will always fail if you strive for perfection, and so will remain imperfect and miserable for all eternity. OK, maybe not all eternity, but near enough!
Striving for perfection does more than take you on a straight no-turns route to failure, it will also cause problems in your social life, work and health. Sex suffers within a relationship with a perfectionist, friendships and work partnerships suffer because perfectionists tend to be more critical of others, too. Also, their constant striving for the unattainable makes them cranky and difficult to be around. The chronic stress of not achieving your aims makes you more prone to illness and long-term disease. Your work, relationships and health will suffer.
Keep your goals
Before you give up on every goal you had before you started reading and reach for the caramel-fudge-salted ice cream, remember that goals are good. Aim for an ab crack if you want – we’ve all got a set of ab muscles under there somewhere. But draw a clear line between striving for perfection and long-term audacious goals by not comparing yourself to others.
“Metrics are very important,” says Curran. “In order for us to compete with others, to strive for perfection, we need to know where we stand. That breeds social anxiety and we then worry about how we look to other people.”
Take the thigh gap, for example. Researchers have shown that regardless of whether you’re a size 0 or a size 10, a thigh gap can only be yours if your hip bones are set wider apart than most women’s. If you’ve got narrow hips and a wasp-like waist, forget it, your thighs will always sit together. So that means only around 5% of the population can enjoy this particular aspect of “perfection” leaving the rest of us to drown in our imperfect pool of self-pity.
Or better still, aim for personal goals instead – rather than trying for a thigh gap, give your flesh a squeeze and figure out where your fat tends to deposit. Find out which ones are your “problem areas” and focus on them. So if you tend towards a little paunch on your belly, work on building a much stronger core so you’ve got better posture and lose a little more weight.
If your thighs wobble, burn more calories regularly, and do Pilates to get those muscles super strong. Use imperfection to harness your greatest strengths and become the best version of you, physically and emotionally. That’s as perfect as you’ll ever get – and that’s alright.
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