In both my daily life and private practice, I encounter a surprising number of women who seem to hold themselves to impossible standards. Many of these women report feeling pressured to “have it all” or, if that’s not possible (spoiler alert: it isn’t), to at least look like they do.
Some are determined to mold themselves into the quintessential supermom. These supermom types tend to pride themselves on being consummate multitaskers – outwardly, they appear to adeptly juggle the demands of work, kids, and family obligations all without missing a beat. Internally, these women often suffer from feelings of anxiety, despondency and guilt over feeling like they are falling short of expectations.
Yet many women, either knowingly or unknowingly, try to conceal the toll it is actually taking on them to keep all the balls in the air. This desire to conceal, to airbrush reality, is perfectly understandable given that so many of us co-exist in a parallel digital universe suffused with photoshopped images of our friends, acquaintances, and “influencers” who are seemingly having the time of their lives (oftentimes in beautiful, exotic locations). In these images, the women truly do seem to have it all. Perfect hair, perfect partners, perfect kids. Like a cadre of trained olympic figure skaters, they make these seemingly impossible feats look effortless.
Meanwhile, as social media consumers we are typically forbidden from peeking behind the so-called digital curtain; we aren’t privy to the tantruming toddler off camera, the featured woman’s mounting marital dissatisfaction, the dirty dishes piled high in the sink. Instead, painstakingly curated images reinforce our feeling that anything less than perfect will not do. Flawed images are deigned unfit for human consumption. It’s no wonder we are left feeling like we are coming up short.
The Social Media Effect
Shiny internet images seem to provide a sharp contrast to our comparatively more pedestrian and mundane lives, inevitably conjuring up primal feelings of envy and shame and dialing up our dissatisfaction with our own unique circumstances. Given this highly curated universe of social media, it makes sense that so many of us would feel pressured to conform to a certain stereotypical image of what a woman or what a mother should look or act like. As a result, many women feel implicit social pressure to literally and figuratively “smooth out the wrinkles”; they live in fear that one small misstep will result in the whole set of dominoes toppling down. This fear dictates that one wrong move – one missed RSVP, one missed PTA meeting, one missed work deadline – will result in being deemed a “bad employee,” a “bad friend,” or, the worst of all possible fates, the dreaded “bad mother.” Sound familiar?
How Does Perfectionism Impact Our Self-Esteem?
So how exactly does living amidst all this cultural noise and all these insidious cultural messages impact our notion of our own self worth? Perfectionism can have an adverse effect on our self-esteem; that is, our own subjective measure of our own self-worth. This is particularly true when we tend to view our self-worth as inextricably bound to our productivity or accolades. We fear we can never meet our own impossible standards or satisfy the excessive demands of society; self-perceived failures in meeting expectations can easily lead to a downward shame spiral. It can feel hard to protect our sense of self-worth and authenticity amidst all the noise.
Preserving Our Self-worth
Aside from minimizing our time on social media outlets (which I wholeheartedly endorse) what can we do, as women, to maintain the sanctity of our self worth? According to humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, self-worth is preserved by narrowing the gap between our self-image and our ideal-self. According to his 1959 book entitled, Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, Rogers explains that we want to feel, experience and behave in ways which are consistent with our self-image and which reflect what we aspire to be, our ideal-self. To be clear, when Rogers refers to the “ideal-self” he is not referring to the airbrushed Instagram ready version of ourselves; rather he is referring to the self that comprises the part of a person’s self-concept that contains their authentic desires, hopes, and wishes. The ideal self houses qualities we are working to possess.
We can think of it this way: the narrower the gap between our self-image and ideal-self, the more congruent we are and the higher our sense of self-worth. Conversely, when the gap between our perceived actual self and our ideal self widens our self-esteem tanks. If you were ever forced to sit through a statistics class in high school or college, you might recall that this is otherwise known as an “inverse relationship” – when one variable increases the other decreases (and vice versa).
One way that I find that therapy can be effective is by helping individuals to identify ways to live that are consistent with their own personal values, that is to more closely adhere to the values that inform their ideal self (the Rogerian ideal self – not the airbrushed, Instagram version). Simply put, our self regard improves when we heed our better judgment, keep our priorities front and center, and adhere to our own moral compass. This statement might seem like a self-evident one that need not bear repeating, but as any skilled therapist can attest to, there is a world of difference between intellectual and emotional insight. The latter can result in real, tangible change while the other is simply an idle, intellectual exercise.
Now that we have just embarked on the New Year, this is a perfect opportunity to take stock of our own values and to set realistic and achievable goals that will help us to take steps towards living in greater accordance with the values we hold dear, to approach our Rogerian ideal self. These goals might assume the form of trying to be a more present parent, a more loving spouse, a more forgiving friend but it is important to also operationalize these goals. For instance, instead of setting a vague goal like “be a more present parent” I might instead aim to establish “15 minutes daily of uninterrupted time with my child.” Instead of simply vowing that I will be a more loving spouse, I can instead decide to carve out a couple of minutes every day to send my spouse an romantic text or perform a small, thoughtful gesture. And so on. Living in this conscious way, with our core values infusing our daily life and actions, not only leads to a more fulfilling life but also enhances our feeling of self-worth.
And when we slip up, which is of course inevitable, we can model showing compassion towards ourselves while simultaneously striving to do better the next day. The key is to focus on changing behaviors that create suffering while simultaneously accepting yourself just as you are. It is this continual tension between change and acceptance that is often at the crux of the therapeutic endeavor. And so perhaps instead of simply setting goals and focusing on what needs to change we also need to resolve to do a better job of accepting ourselves in all of our imperfect glory.
Carl Rogers perhaps put it best in his 1961 book On Becoming a Person, when he boldly asserted, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience—that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” Yes, indeed.