By Kathryn Smith, Clinical Psychologist
No one wants to be average anymore. Our society seems to be in constant pursuit of perfectionism. We are expected to be the perfect student, perfect parent, perfect employee or boss and look our best at all times. We are bombarded with messages through media about how we should behave, what we should think and how we should feel. It’s no wonder that most of us are left with the feeling of falling short of expectations.
Low self esteem according to one of the leading self compassion researchers, Dr Kristen Neff, is on the rise despite programs being rolled out in primary school years to stave off this potential issue. Interestingly, as Dr Neff notes, self esteem in western societies is largely based on how we perceive ourselves in comparison to others. We are often validated by how many rewards we receive, compliments, the type of house we live in, the clothes we wear, the car we drive and how well our children do at school. You don’t have to go too far on social media sites to see someone that seems to have it better than you. Facebook, Instagram and alike seem now to be sites to simply show the world how great you are. This is further promoted by TV shows such as “The Real Housewives of Melbourne” and other so called “reality” TV. At the end of the day, we look at ourselves and ask why don’t I have that, why can’t I live like that, why am I not successful and ultimately why am I not happy?
If self esteem is based on being better than someone else then aren’t we endorsing everyone to be above average? And if this is so, as Dr Neff asks, “How can we all be above average? Isn’t that illogical?”
As a psychologist, I spend a lot of time with people telling them it’s actually okay to be average. It is also okay to feel disappointed at times and even fail. These experiences, despite being somewhat unpleasant, provide us with the opportunity to learn and to grow. If we expect a perfect result every time, we are actually more likely to give up rather than try, try again.
Happiness doesn’t need to be pinned on perfectionism. Often the pursuit of perfectionism leads to a sense of unhappiness and in some cases anxiety and depression. When there is a perceived failure (in other words something that may be considered as average), the sense of failure seems so overwhelming that it can lead to self hatred. A perfect example of this is the student striving to get perfect results. The emotional cost of this pursuit often produces significant distress which ironically is what they are trying to avoid.
Some parents also fall into the trap of being the perfect parent. Right from the birth, parents are bombarded with messages of what they should do. When a new mother is not successful at breastfeeding, instead of hearing the message “that’s okay”, she often is made to feel guilty and a failure. When we get a bit cranky with our children or express our frustrations, again we feel guilty. The late D.W. Winnicott, a paediatrician and psychoanalyst, introduced the concept of the “good enough mother”. He commented in his writings that it takes an “imperfect mother to raise a child well”.
So what does this all mean? Should we stop striving?
Well, the answer to this is no. We should still strive to do our best and set personal goals as this actually makes us feel good. We should however base our goals on what is important to us and not what is simply reflected back through societal trends and media. We should be forgiving of ourselves when we do occasionally fail and congratulate ourselves when we achieve.
Finally we should celebrate being average… Let’s face it after all we are in good company. So next time, when we see some impossible platitude posted on social media or perceive someone to be doing better, remember good enough is still very much good enough.
To read more about Kathryn Smith and our team of Psychologists visit the Team pageof our website.