You might have seen Facebook and Instagram posts featuring perfectly baked sourdough bread or color-coordinated wardrobes refreshed by spring cleaning. Or retweets of parent-made, elaborately executed homeschooling plans, replete with 50 creative activities for every age group. And you might have wondered: “How do these people have the time, energy, and focus to do all of this while facing the pandemic and dealing with the mounting daily stressors resulting from it?”
The most likely answer is: They don’t. They just need to project a perfect image to help themselves feel better. Or more specifically, they do it because they believe that they will feel better. Gordon Flett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and co-author of the book perfectionist, calls this phenomenon “perfectionistic self-presentation.” In a conversation with me, he explained that while social media bragging might feel good at first, it doesn’t help the braggart in the long run.
I’m not saying that people posting perfect images of their quarantine lives are deliberately creating a false reality online. A minority of them might indeed be presenting fiction as truth (celebrities or their PR teams are likely doing it purposefully), but I suspect that most people are feeling pressured to be perfect or at least appear perfect. This pressure is fueled by our competitive and image-conscious culture and has been further exacerbated by social media. Indeed, it appears that perfectionism has increased among college students in the U.S. since the late '80s.
Perfectionists have unrealistically high standards for themselves, most often in their professional lives, but also in other domains. Their self-worth is almost exclusively based on meeting these standards and they perceive any mistakes, delays, or imperfectly executed goals as personal failures. Sadly, they often feel very little satisfaction and pride even upon achieving their goals. Perfectionists tend to ruminate, worry, and be self-critical of themselves and others. When stressed, they are prone to anxiety and depression.
More than anything, perfectionists fear that they are not worthy of love and acceptance unless they continue to clear an ever-rising bar of excellence. “Our research shows that insecure people have a need to project perfect self-image,” said Flett. It is no surprise, then, that they feel that the worldwide pandemic must not derail them in their pursuits and that they must strive for perfection even when the world has turned topsy turvy. Their internet posts reflect the need to show that, here they are, still trying to be practically perfect in every way, even though behind those images might lie a lot of struggle, pain, anxiety, discord, and sorrow.
When you scroll through your feed, you don’t see perfectionists frantically trying to keep it together in a world where they’re losing the control they’re used to having. You don’t see their sleepless nights wracked with the worry that led to that sourdough loaf or their desperate attempts to create order by cleaning the closets. Or the guilt and tears that come after the realization that nothing one does while homeschooling will be as good as their daughter’s first grade teacher.
What you see is a mirage of perfection. And you, in turn, feel bad that you are failing in comparison, even though you know this is a curated and embellished reality, not someone’s actual life. You can't help it—envy and resentment start to build up. Why can’t you make that bread? Why are you barely managing to shower each day, not lose your job, and keep your kids healthy? Why is it only you who is flailing?
The truth is that everyone is flailing. It’s part of being human: doing the best one can in any given moment, making mistakes, falling, and getting up and trying again. It has always been like that, and the coronavirus pandemic has just forced us to take off our rose-colored glasses. And yet, there is beauty and resilience in this imperfection! Be brave and embrace it. The next time you reach for Facebook or Instagram, experiment with just being real. You might be surprised by the response.
Finally, don't criticize or shame those quarantine braggarts. Remember that underneath it all, we just want to be seen, known, and accepted with all our warts. Express kindness and compassion for how hard it must be to try to excel in spite of the crisis. And put your acceptance of everyone out there into the world. There are more than a few folks who need it right now.
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