The dangerous pursuit of perfection

We live in a world of continual comparison and pressure to be different, special and successful. The Western world sits pretty on its foundations of individuality, competition and relentless growth and without knowing it, the young are exposed to all kinds of subtle pressure to perform or shall we say outperform, those around them.

The New York Times recently covered a story on the alarming growth of so-called ‘suicide clusters’ in its elite colleges. In January of 2014, young, bright and seemingly trouble free Madison Holleran took her life, the third of six Penn students to commit suicide in a 13-month stretch. Penn is not the only college suffering such tragedies, for this year Tulane University has so far lost four students and Appalachian State three.

Across the US, the suicide rate for 15 to 24 year olds is low but increasing up from 9.6 to 11.1 per 100, 000 in 2013. A 2014 survey of college counselling centres found 52% of centre clients have severe psychological problems (up from 44% in 2013). In schools over 15 000, the rate is 59%, 50% of whom can be successfully treated and 9% that cannot effectively remain in school. Anxiety and depression are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, a trend reflected in society more broadly.

Madison Holleran tragically took her own life in 2014.
Madison Holleran tragically took her own life in 2014. Source: Madison Holleran Foundation

In response to Ms Holleran’s death, Penn created a mental health task force to examine the current issues with mental health on campus. Its final report found an increase in outreach services and counselling centres was required but it also noted another more insidious and threatening aspect of college culture; Penn Face.

The term refers to the idea of acting happy and assured despite underlying feelings of being sad or stressed.

Penn State Campus. Source; Wikimedia
Penn State Campus. Source: Wikimedia

While the term applies to Penn, the behaviour it describes does not.

It is certain that this kind of pressure to ‘be happy and pleasant’ afflicts young people everywhere, especially those in apparent positions of affluence, privilege or success.

We use phrases like ‘first-world problems’ to emphasise how an unnecessary focus on trivial, unimportant ‘problems’ makes a mockery of those more disadvantaged, say without sufficient nutrition, shelter or employment.

This may very well be the case at times, but the pressure to seem perfect and ‘OK’ is indeed real and has damaging repercussions if the realities of our lives cannot be properly distinguished from the filters that mask them.

The Penn task force found the “perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular and social endeavour can manifest as demoralisation, alienation or conditions like anxiety or depression.”

Pressure to be perfect or comparison to others is a dangerous trap. Source: PIxabay
Pressure to be perfect or comparison to others is a dangerous trap. Source: PIxabay

Undoubtedly the rise of social media and concurrent glamour posting on Instagram or Facebook can easily create the perception that all of those around us are living a perfect life, full of colour, inspiration, friends, success and travel.

Gregory T. Eells, Counselling Director at Cornell University, believes social media is indeed a significant contributor to misperceptions about the realities of people’s lives.

In response to student remarks during counselling sessions that everyone around looks happy he tells them, “I walk around and think, ‘That one’s gone to the hospital. That person has an eating disorder. That student just went on antidepressants.’ As a therapist, I know that nobody is as happy or as grown-up as they seem on the outside.”

Social comparison theory states that we naturally try to determine our worth based on how we compare to others.

In the world of social media, where people carefully curate their profiles to show only their ‘best and most admirable’ qualities, the rate and quantity of comparison is continual and far more likely to be distorted.

If you find yourself prone to comparing yourself based on what you see of your friend’s lives online, it’s pertinent to remember: social media isn’t real. It never has been, never will be. People will continue to curate their profiles and feeds to show the best of themselves so making comparisons in this sphere an unhealthy waste of time.

Further, don’t assume that because friends, acquaintances or loved ones seem ‘OK’ that they necessarily are. The sooner the realities of the human condition are faced for what they are, the sooner we can move forward with a more supportive perspective, less likely to alienate those in suffering.

We all have battles. We all have challenges. Be real and kind to those who are being real. You never know when you’ll need a dose of kindness in response to your dose of reality.

 

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