Embracing Imperfection especially during the holidays
Angela Tanner, Ph.D.
Every Fall, my husband, two boys, and I gather to have our Christmas picture taken, along with horse, dog, guinea pig, and any other furry critter that is part of our family at the time. None of us (most especially the horse) look forward to this. Yet every year we seem to get at least one acceptable picture to send to friends and family. There we stand, portraying a world where everyone is always smiling, where horses never roll in mud right before a photo shoot, where guinea pigs never bite, and where children are always well behaved. A peaceful family in perfect Santa Barbara weather. It’s almost like cartoon song birds are about to land on our shoulders. But that’s not a clear picture of reality is it? Even though, and especially on social media, everyone else in the world seems flawless. One can start comparing oneself to all those images of happy, joyful people on vacations, all those people happily glowing from their latest workouts, in the cleanest houses, with the most well-pruned gardens, driving to their fulfilling jobs, and coming home to their endlessly cherubic children. We compare and then we can’t help but despair because in comparison, our lives seem so imperfect. This can be true especially for our pre-teen and teen children for whom social media is the norm. According to recent worldwide research, social media platforms such as, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are all viewed as being detrimental to young people’s mental health because they deepen feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Photo-sharing site Instagram is ranked as the worst of all of them in terms of its effect on anxiety, depression, self-identity, loneliness, bullying, and body image. Magazines and advertising have long been criticized for upholding dangerously unrealistic standards of success and beauty, but at least it’s acknowledged that they are idealized. The models wearing Size 0 clothing are just that: models. And even they are made-up, retouched, and photoshopped. These days, however, the impossible standards are set much closer to home, not by celebrities and models but by classmates, neighbors, and friends. With social media, we can curate our lives, and the resulting feeds read like highlight reels, showing only the best and most enviable moments while concealing efforts, struggles, and imperfections. For pre-teen children and teenagers the combined weight of vulnerability, the need for validation, and a desire to compare themselves with peers can form a perfect storm of self-doubt, leading to intense self-scrutiny and self-criticism. Today, technology and social media are part of our children’s lives. So it may be incumbent upon us, as parents and educators, to model a healthy response to struggle, failure, and imperfection. Kids have to get the message that it is okay to fail. And not only that it’s okay to fail, but that showing it is okay, too. A wonderful example of someone who is wildly successful, not afraid to fail, and not afraid to share his failures is Elon Musk. One can find plenty of his tweets showing several of SpaceX's early landing attempts…and failures. Accompanying one of his videos, Musk tweeted, "We messed up a lot before it finally worked, but there's some epic explosion footage." Talk about being comfortable with having the world know about your mistakes! If parents hide their own failures, kids are less likely to be okay with anything less than success. When things don’t work out as we’d planned, a project goes awry, we burn the Christmas pie, we should show our children how to accept it with grace. We should let kids know that failure is part of how we learn to succeed, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and we should let them see us pick ourselves up and try again. So in honor of authenticity, this year I think we’ll choose our Christmas card picture from the 100-some pictures of us trying to get the horse to stand still, the dog to face the right direction, the guinea pig to not bite, and the boys to comb their hair. At least it'll still show perfect Santa Barbara weather!
Angela Tanner, Ph.D. is the Founder and Director of The Knox School of Santa Barbara, dedicated to serving gifted children, many of whom are perfectionists.