Society asks that we be perfect, but there’s a tremendous value in making mistakes along the way and learning from them
By Maria Beider, MSW
How often do we hear expressions like “Strive for excellence” or a variation quoted in our everyday lives? When did excellence become an end goal and an aspiration? Being excellent places tremendous pressure on an individual and may cause untold anxiety. If one is deemed excellent, one must constantly continue to live up to that elite standard, with no respite. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find trailing just behind the “expectation of excellence” its partner in crime, “perfectionism”. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Perfectionism is a very subtle, often angelic-looking creature and yet it has the capacity, if unleashed, to grow into a dark, sinister, and self-destructive character trait. Do we, as parents, somehow, on a subconscious level, encourage our children to strive for perfection? We may inadvertently teach perfectionism by demonstrating it in our own efforts to lose weight and look ‘perfect’; in having a spotless home that imitates a glossy catalogue picture; or by pushing our children with hours of extra lessons to achieve top, near-perfect grades.
How often do we remember to praise our children for trying hard and persevering or for being brave enough to tackle something new even if it means making mistakes along the way? I have always had a pet peeve for avid Tippex users for this reason. What is so wrong with drawing a line through a mistake? There is great beauty in human error; it not only emphasises our fallibility, but also reflects courage in risk taking and creativity. Da Vinci’s sketches and Shakespeare’s musings sell for millions these days!
Just when we thought that the media could not stoop any lower with its constant barrage of unhealthy images of waiflike supermodels for us to feast our eyes on, along came the digital age of social media and the next generation became exposed to airbrushed, enhanced images of their idols. What is more, our darling, sweet, but not necessarily “aesthetically perfec” teenagers, who are dealing with the multiple challenges of being at a physically awkward stage, are under pressure to Photoshop themselves with flawless, pixie-like or Disney-eyed selfies and the like, reflecting a much cuter image than reality could ever convey!
Sadly, this generation has the tragic misfortune of falling under the spell of perfectionism and constant striving for excellence. It pervades so many aspects of their lives, not just social media. Why has the school system still not fully comprehended that there is more to education than emphasising high grades and focusing on tests? Shouldn’t the timeless values of working hard, trying hard, and doing your best be held aloft as the golden standard of the day? Should we not be grading ourselves against our own benchmark instead of comparing ourselves to others?
And what happens if we are not excellent, high achieving, or perfect as society demands all of the time? Now that is a terrifying thought for many people! If that brilliant genius son of yours fails, or even comes second or third when he is used to being top, will he still be accepted by his peers, his teachers, and his family? Or more importantly, will he accept himself? Will he be deemed “good enough”? To some that have been labelled the ‘high achievers’, the ‘beautiful ones’, the ‘popular ones’, or the perfectionist types, there is a huge fear that their validation is dependent only on their achievements, their grades, their looks, or how many “likes” they have. For these fragile characters, one failure or rejection could be devastating.
I remember the first time I tasted real failure. It was just after high school when I was learning to drive. I had always got by somehow in school in a slapdash way (lucky for me I have never been a perfectionist). Once outside the academic sphere, I was in for a shock. I successfully failed my driving test four times in a row. Ouch! I was mortified. Experiencing repeated failure was painful, but, in retrospect, healthy for me too. Looking back, I am grateful to have had this experience in my youth because it made me more resilient and I was able to accept that I was less than average in the spatial awareness department! (My patient husband can attest to this!) The lesson I took away from this episode was that you can fail, get back up, persevere, eventually succeed, and still survive with your self-esteem intact.
Perfectionism appears to be an epidemic in this warped reality in which we live. In adulthood, many of these brilliant people who have been groomed for excellence will be too afraid to try, for fear of slipping up. They cannot possibly take the risk and so they are better off playing safe and not even trying. Such perfectionistic tendencies, in extreme cases, can contribute substantially to a whole host of mental health conditions which include: anorexia or other eating disorders, OCD, anxiety, and depression. When the lack of self-acceptance has been so deeply internalised, life can be so painful that suicide may seem to be the only way out.
Incidentally, I have noticed that the children who have accepted that they are not the highest achievers and are not striving for excellence often have much healthier levels of self-esteem and are content in trying hard and succeeding against their own, albeit average, standard. Without the great burden of being excellent or perfect, they are free to try out new things and make mistakes. They have developed a greater resilience and, as a result, often those mediocre individuals, who don’t necessarily shine or stand out, are the very ones who become highly successful adults.
How can we, as adults, model fallibility and vulnerability? The antidote to this poisonous epidemic seems simple: teach the next generation that it is important to make mistakes and that there is nothing wrong with working hard, doing your best, and achieving average results. If children walk around putting Tippex on every mistake they make, they will be highly anxious when it eventually runs out! How many pictures do they need to take before they post the “perfect one” on Facebook? If they do not take risks and try out new things, how can they learn?
When I was a primary school teacher, I felt very strongly that one of the most important gifts I could impart was to show my humanity and vulnerability. If I made silly mistakes, I would make a point of exposing them and laughing at myself in front of my pupils. If they asked me a difficult question (usually in science which was not my best subject) I would tell them I did not know the answer (but I would try to find out) and that adults are not all-knowing. My daughter recently told me that her English teacher asks the girls to help her spell when she writes on the board because she claims her spelling is atrocious. This kind of modelling of imperfection is laudable.
Do your children know that they are good enough as they are, warts and all? My favourite psychoanalyst, the English paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, working in the 1950s in England, taught women to just be ‘good enough’ mothers. This term has proved invaluable to me, not just when I was a new young mother, but throughout my adult life. How much more essential is it to impart this message to our children, to just be good enough?
Our job is to make the next generation feel loved and accepted unconditionally while encouraging (safe) risk taking and perseverance. We need to remind ourselves and our children that it is important to experience failure and that one cannot learn without making mistakes. And, as for me, being excellent is a superlative that I think I would rather forgo. In fact, I think I might coin a new phrase: “striving to be good enough as I am.”
Note to the editor: Ironically, I find myself wondering, before I’ve even submitted it, if this article I am writing will be deemed “good enough”!
ED: Note to the writer: It was!
Originally a primary school teacher from London, for the past fourteen years Maria Beider has been living in Israel with her husband and their five children. During this time, she gained a Masters in Social Work and subsequently practiced as a psychotherapist at the Neve Family Institute, specialising in trauma. She is also trained in EMDR and IFS (Internal Family Systems). The Beider family recently moved to Johannesburg, where her husband has taken up a Rabbinical post.
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