It was in the stand at Sheffield United when I started to think about the damaging effects of perfectionism.
I was in the stand as an undercover (well behaved) West Ham fan to see my team play in the flesh for the first time in years. In injury time West Ham scored an equaliser. I maintained my composure as the West Ham fans at the other end went bananas and the United fans around me stood in stony silence. Then up came the message for a VAR check. The goal was disallowed for a handball. Many felt it was a harsh call – the key thing was that right or wrong it was a judgment call.
For those not versed in the joys of VAR it is the system used in Premier League Football to check for mistakes. It’s fair to say it’s not universally popular. The issue for me is simple – someone, albeit using TV replays – still has to make a decision, a decision that can still be argued about. For me, VAR is football’s Brexit – the desire for a simple answer to a complex problem. For years people have been calling for technology to be used to solve refereeing mistakes but technology is no panacea – someone still has to make that call. It will never be perfect. If we continue to strive for perfect decisions football will have to be run by computers not people. Games will be constantly stopped by klaxons. Every tackle will become a foul. There will be seven penalties per side each game, five of which will have to be retaken due to infringements and a free flowing game will be replaced by a football version of chess.
Overdramatic? Maybe but it got me thinking about this strain of perfectionism, which is all around us. It leads us to chase an illusory dream of a ‘just right’ life, which ends up being bad for us.
- The obsession with the perfect body whereby we are swamped with airbrushed images of beautiful people who actually lead unhealthy lives. I read a recent interview with an ex boyband singer who said he’d just eaten porridge and fish for a month to get in shape for a modelling shoot. Project this onto a couple of generations and we are left with a rise in eating disorders and steroid misuse.
- The rise in the use of social media for people to develop and project their own image – making yourself look good and your life look great. As relationships become ever more virtual than actual, people are less able to be themselves and more required to try to become someone of interest. As romantic relationships are increasingly developed online, it’s not so much a question of getting to know someone as showing yourself as physically worthy of attention.
- The rise of performance management in education and work. As a manager in my day job I am well aware of the need to hold people accountable for the quality of their work. However, I try to remember that I am faced with a person not a unit of employment. I was struck when watching the Ken Loach film ‘Sorry we missed you’ about insecure, target driven employment that the risk is not so much robots taking our jobs as seeking to turn people into robotic workers. I’m aware this is nothing new but it seems we are going backwards in our working practices not forwards. This dehumanising target culture increasingly drives our education system, which is not so much about development of ability as a breathless race for results.
I am taken back to a recurring question – why in a society that is increasingly advanced are so lacking in peace and well-being?
My conclusion is that this perfectionism reveals the false foundations we are building upon. In striving for impossible perfection we start from a place of inadequacy – of believing we are not good enough and need to prove ourselves. This means our lives are built upon anxiety. We seek to overcome anxiety through success but many are consumed by it along the way. Our society is littered with casualties who couldn’t keep up in the race.
Is this what we want for our kids? Is this we want for our society?
My alternative is, as you would expect, based on faith.
Faith itself, wrongly pursued, can clearly fall into exactly the same trap.
Faith cannot be about becoming good enough for God. The Bible makes clear this is not possible and is not the point.
The point is that in God, we see that we are of value before we do anything. We are made, known and loved.
We are so loved that God gave himself for all our inadequacies and seeks a way for each of us to know that love personally.
Imagine another approach to life. Imagine an approach where life is about unearthing gifts, discovering potential and taking opportunities.
In the same way that I believe that in a just world there is enough resource for everyone, I believe there is a place for everyone to do something productive and meaningful and to live in community and relationship.
And no we can’t all be rock stars and footballers. They shouldn’t be our template. Our template should be finding what fits us – bus drivers, cleaners, accountants etc etc.
As a parent I have seen the pressure the education system places upon young people, which pushes the limits of their health and well-being. I have also heard too much nonsense telling them they can be whatever they want to be.
What they can be is their glorious selves. And how can that not be enough?