Exploring relationships between perfectionism and media influence
It is said that the average Australian adult watches between two and four hours of TV every day. In addition they spend increasing amounts of time on their computers, ipads and smart phones. They also see ads in magazines and on billboards and posters at every turn. Even the busiest of teachers, with no time left for channel hopping or internet browsing, is continually exposed to media images in and out of their homes. Avoidance is not an option, as social beings we are all subject to the influences of life in a media driven society. Sometimes we are influenced for the better (think stop smoking campaigns) and sometimes for the worse.
In this article we take a look at three distinct ways that the media encourages perfectionist tendencies and consequently fuels stress and overload. More importantly, we look at some valuable ways to combat these powerful yet, unhelpful social influences.
Perfectionism means setting standards that are too high to be achievable in one or more domain of life. This is distinctly different from having high standards per se or from being a high achiever. Some people are perfectionist about their own aims and ideals, e.g. believing their teaching is never quite good enough. Some are perfectionist about others and appear overly critical and unsatisfied with those around them.
Perfectionism, by definition, is frustrating and exhausting. It goes hand in hand with stress because it creates overload and overwhelm in an attempt to achieve the unachievable. Perfectionists rarely experience a sense of success and frequently feel they are failing.
Linking media influence to perfectionism – extrinsic rewards systems
From the earliest renditions of fairy stories describing how the perfect princess rides into the sunset with perfect Prince Charming, to the modern day fairy tales from Hollywood, perfectionist messages are loud and clear. If we present ourselves in some perfect way (be it in our perfect appearance or exemplary behaviour) we will be perfectly happy.
These simple messages fuel perfectionism. They encourage a focus on outward presentation as a measure of success. This means that we start to look for extrinsic feedback as a means of gauging how well we are doing rather than listening to our intrinsic barometer. Certainly external feedback from others is an important learning tool however; no amount of external praise can provide long term wellbeing. It does nothing to ensure we are engaged in what we are doing, have meaning or a sense of purpose. It is also a very fragile means of gaining an emotional reward. For example, if our partner fails to appreciate our cooking, we are more inclined to take things personally if we are relying on their feedback. Take this overly extrinsic focus into the classroom and into the hands of our students, and we can see that we are indeed on very shaky ground.
If we believe we may crumble without extrinsic praise, we are learning that we must present ourselves in an increasingly perfect way to avoid failure. In contrast, time given to intrinsic feedback enables us to direct our pursuits in ways that engage us, provide meaning for us and develops a sense of purpose. These are the rewards that constitute sustainable wellbeing.
Linking media influence to perfectionism – the pursuit of happiness
The majority of movies clearly tell us that wellbeing signifies the end point in our adventures, not necessarily a part of the journey – happiness arrives when the credits roll.
Over time this ‘happily ever after’ approach to story telling encourages us to aim for happiness rather than to aim for life (and consequently experience happiness along the way). Movies, fairytales and glamorous ads all set us up to see happiness as an outcome that is somehow, bizarrely separate from the living of life itself.
In reality, happiness does not come from a moment of perfection. Happiness comes from living life in a passionate and meaningful way. It is a part of life not a result of life.
Linking media influence to perfectionism – one-dimensional success
The small amount of time available for even the most complex of movies means that we only witness the limited aspects of a protagonist’s character. The aspects that are needed to tell the story. In many films characters are simplified into basic positive or negative characteristics and we are encouraged, as the viewer, to wholeheartedly like or dislike them. Rarely are we deliberately left with ambiguity. This means that we are continually subjected to one-dimensional representations of people and a very black and white perception of success and failure.
Even though we may understand that movies are not equivalent to the real world , the one-dimensionality of movies can be a major influence on our thinking and perception. In modern media society, it is easy to see things in terms of being perfect (good) or flawed (bad). This one-dimensional approach encourages a belief that we must be flawless to be successful. In reality our flaws give us humanity and our failures show us we are living our lives.
Embracing life on the global screen
Understanding some of the negative influences of the media does not necessarily mean we should throw away our TV sets of bury our heads in the extensive Australian sand. Rather it means that we need to consciously separate media portrayals of life from life itself.
- When others opinions start to matter more than your own internal dialogue remind yourself that intrinsic rewards are the most powerful motivators of your success and wellbeing. Ask yourself “did this activity engage me in any way? Give me meaning? Provide any sense of purpose?”
- When you find yourself caught up in the pursuit of something that you believe will ‘make’ you happy, remind yourself to never pursue happiness. Rather, pursue the things in life that deliver intrinsic rewards…happiness will then follow.
- When you feel you failed at something or find yourself exhausted by your attempts to succeed remember that everything in life is filled with positives and negatives. True success incorporates acceptance of failure and imperfection as much as it embraces a celebration of achievement.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (www.positiveschools.com.au)