When lockdown was brought in three months ago, many of us took the opportunity to try new hobbies and develop our skills. We started running more often, attempted new exercise classes and started online courses, with the view of being productive while passing the time.
As the weeks dragged on, though, our enthusiasm for these extra-curricular activities began to dwindle. The stress of living through a global pandemic began to set in and our priorities shifted. Being a better version of ourselves seemed less important than just trying to function day-to-day – and make it through the pandemic with our health and wellbeing intact.
It’s easy to feel guilty when we abandon a project or stop trying to improve ourselves. Nobody likes to admit ‘failure’ – and the feeling of making progress, developing and achieving goals is part of being human. We’re driven by targets, and moving forwards is important to our happiness.
But constantly seeking to be better versions of ourselves can have a serious impact on our wellbeing.
“In modern society, with all the stimulation and noise, it can be easy to swing too far across to the other side of the spectrum,” says environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers, founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing.
“Like anything that is powerful in moderation, self-improvement in excess becomes toxic. We start to lose acuity for the joys of the present moment, as we continually look to the future goals. We forget to celebrate the small wins, and neglect reflecting on how we can do things differently.”
There is nothing wrong with having high standards and wanting to push ourselves to achieve, but seeking perfection is damaging. It breeds a desire to be flawless that verges on obsession and leads us to be overly critical of ourselves, which can take its toll on our mental wellbeing. A meta-analysis of 284 studies published in 2016 found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as sleeping problems.
And as we focus too intently on what we aspire to be, we can feel disheartened because we feel so far away from our goals. “We become impatient with the process, trying to find extreme shortcuts and quick fixes rather than building sustainable long term compounding improvements,” says Chambers. “And as we struggle to keep these consistent, we blame and criticise ourselves.”
Trying to improve ourselves all the time can also lead to exhaustion, stress and burnout. “People end up undereating, overtraining, sleep deprived, burnt out, overly stressed, anxious and unable to appreciate life’s gifts, wins and laughs,” Chambers says. “We become less attuned to our bodies and push it beyond its limits, which leads us to gradually fall apart, all in the name of improvement.”
So why are we sacrificing our health in the name of self-improvement?
Striving for perfection isn’t the same as being competitive or aiming for excellence, which can be healthy. But what makes perfectionism toxic is that you hold yourself and others to an impossible standard which can never be achieved. Psychologists point to a number of contributing factors, including our personalities, family pressures, unstable job markets, an unpredictable economy and standardised school testing at an early age.
“Growing up in an achievement society, we start to desire the perfect score on the test. This pervades into our adult lives, but the mission to perfection is a fruitless pursuit, as no human being is perfect,” Chambers says.
Social media also plays a part too. We’re constantly looking at snippets of other people’s lives – and only the best bits. When we scroll through Facebook and Instagram, we see people getting promoted, buying homes and going on holiday – and it’s only natural that we compare our lives to theirs. We're constantly bombarded with pressure to be happier or more successful, which can have a significant impact on our self-esteem.
“We are at a point where you can feel guilty if you’re not keeping up with an unobtainable standard, which is as cruel and frustrating as dangling a carrot on a stick,” Chambers says. “The truth of improvement is that we only need to make the smallest positive changes and additions to our lives, and we will get incrementally better every day.”