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What if We Told Them the Truth About Perfectionism?

Social Emotional Learning Friday, 01 Oct 2021

I’ve written about the social-emotional ills of perfectionism before, but this time I’d like to focus on what we might tell our children/students as we help them learn, grow, and come to accept and love themselves, imperfections and all. How might we liberate students at an early age from the unhealthy and unrealistic expectation that they must succeed in everything, and that our love is even partially conditional upon their striving for perfection?

What if we told them the truth?

“You are not perfect. In fact, you will never, even if you live to be more than one-hundred-years-old (which you might), be perfect. Not just in general, but in anything you do. Never. According to the United Nations, there are seven billion people alive today, and the Population Reference Bureau, which has studied the issue, estimates that about 107 billion people have ever lived. And you know what? Not one of them was exactly the same as another, and none of them, not a single one, was perfect. I am not perfect, by any stretch—and neither are you. Nor can we be.

You are coming of age in an era in which curating an artificial image of perfection has become confused with success…where making a mistake, or being vulnerable, humbled, embarrassed, awkward, ashamed or confused—or just plain screwing up—has been mistaken for failure, for weakness. But the truth is, if you love yourself when you fail, and own your failures, your shortcomings, your blind spots, and your struggles, whatever is really hard for you to do, not only will you learn more, grow more, and achieve more…you’ll enjoy your life
more. You’ll be, in short, more genuinely you.

So I urge you to resist the pressure we put on you to be perfect, to “perform,” to achieve, pressure you feel from our anxiety-ridden, senselessly-competitive and superficial society that markets a lie, a myth of a world composed of only winners and losers. Instead, I urge you to commit yourselves to nothing beyond doing your best each day, and forgiving others who try to do the same but fall short. Because we all fall short. Even those around you who try hard to hide their imperfections, who you might think have such easy lives, they fall short. And they know it. They’re just afraid to let anyone see it. Aren’t we all?

And those who care for you and love you—your parents, friends, teachers, advisors, and coaches—we may also put pressure on you to be perfect. Let it go. Reject it. Disown it. It’s not yours. It’s almost always ours. No one on earth can ask anything of you but to do your best, treat others with patience, kindness and generosity, and come back the day after an epic fail, having reflected on what role you played in it, ready to try again. Anything else is not only unreasonable, it’s dangerous. For you, and for your communities. Because the truth is that every one of us has learned more from our failures than from our triumphs. Learning means making mistakes and growing afterward. So accept failure and don’t be surprised by some disappointment along the way. Love yourself simply because you’re you, not because of what you achieve. Being you is more than enough. And love others, too, in spite of their shortcomings. If you can remember this, you’re always going to be okay. And being okay is all that matters. Being okay, in fact, is exactly what’s required for anyone to succeed in anything that matters.”