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The Era Of Perfect


How do you answer the perennial interview question: what do you think your weaknesses are?


One of the most evasive answers people offer is: oh, I’m a perfectionist; I can’t help myself. For which read: actually, I don’t think I have any weaknesses other than trying to be the best at everything. And yet the evidence suggests that true perfectionists are insecure, unable to celebrate success and at higher risk of burnout than others. Not, perhaps, the perfect colleague to have in the workplace after all.


Thomas Curran has shown that rates of perfectionism in the US, UK and Canada rose substantially between 1989 and 2016 and has written The Perfection Trap (Cornerstone, 2023) because he believes perfectionism has reached epidemic proportions.


Psychologists note three kinds of perfectionism:


Self-orientated, where the individual sets impossible standards and usually fails to meet them.


Other orientated, where the individual sets other people impossible standards and then gets cross when they don’t meet them.


Socially prescribed, where the individual believes other people have set him or her impossible standards which consume the individual with anxiety.


None of these look especially attractive and Curran thinks the emergence of social media has turbo-charged socially prescribed perfectionism by exposing people to the digitally enhanced and utterly inauthentic perfection of its influencers. The social media model is designed to sell ad space to those who promise to sell stuff that makes us feel a bit better about our lives and appearance. Or to put it another way: there is every incentive for the tech companies to make us feel miserable about ourselves so they and those they sell ad space to can make a tidy profit.


There is contended research about the impact that social media has on the lives of young people in particular but many have already made up their minds about this, and reasonably so. Teenage mental ill health maps with striking effect onto the invention of the smartphone and the breakthrough of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.


The Gospel has a powerful antidote to this, but it is a nuanced and challenging story. We all fall short of the glory of God and this puts us out of relationship with him. But trust in the perfect life, redeeming death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus makes us friends with God. The strive for perfection is met by the perfection of Jesus himself. There is nothing more to do.


Except Jesus also said: Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.


The uncompromising standard thus rears its head again, but in a better form than today’s epidemic because it is focussed on moral perfection instead. And we have the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to shape us more recognisably into this form. Only a fool would be stupid enough to say they have arrived at moral perfection (though it has bee seen historically in the invidious doctrine of sinless perfection). Yet the evidence of being transformed into the likeness of Christ is present in many people and a cause for hope in the rest of us.


The curse of other-orientated perfectionism means there is less forgiveness in our culture; we expect higher and higher standards of others and digital rating systems are only making things worse. In this maelstrom, people turn more to self-care. Self-care is important for well-being, but if the criticism of others makes us tend to ourselves more often, it may mead we miss the touchstone of Jesus’ call to be perfect. And that’s to show perfection in caring for others.



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