Today’s world is one where events, achievements big and small, and adventures are on display. Scrolling through Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, or Twitter, it’s a daily barrage of polished vacation photos, perfectly posed selfies, witty videos, and foodie-approved plates. Social media has gifted the world with empowering movements and the voice of Gritty, but it’s also contributed to increased feelings of depression, bullying, and more.
While these networks can be a fun and engaging way to get news updates, and stay in touch with family and friends, they encourage comparison, often through the number of likes posts receive. What’s more, social media has been shown to negatively impact mental health, especially for teens. Posts, likes, and comments can contribute to feelings of perfectionism, anxiety, and even body-negativity. Thankfully, companies have taken notice. Recently, Instagram announced that some users in the United States will experience a platform without likes—a move intended to make the service a healthier environment.
Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, speaks with patients about perfectionism, and often addresses social media as a stressor. According to Tyler, the news from Instagram is hopeful. By deemphasizing the number of likes on posts, Tyler says young people might focus less on how they measure up to their peers. That said, he is skeptical that social culture won’t find a way to inch its way back to some sort of social comparison.
“A big trigger for perfectionism is social media and that fear of missing out,” Tyler said. “It can be challenging to take a step back and recognize that what is being posted isn’t reality. Many assume that people with those perfect photos don’t have problems, but they do. It’s important to remember that the people behind the lens are just as stressed and nervous as everyone else. Everybody suffers at some point or feels less than perfect. Social media expression is inherently biased because very few people aim to post about their flaws.”
While striving for perfection can be seen as a great character trait for something like a job interview, studies show that perfectionism can harm one’s mental health. Increasingly, young adolescents hold unrealistic expectations on what they should own, how they should look, or what they need to achieve, which is linked to higher rates of anxiety. This focus on perfectionism can be destructive—more than a mental health risk factor, it can be a physical one as well, Tyler explains. Studies on the role of perfectionism and physical health in college students, for example, tell us that those striving harder for perfection tend to report more health problems such as headaches, physical tension, and insomnia as well a decline in general health wellness over time. Essentially, what is known about perfectionism is that it can serve as the underlying cause of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and poor physical health. What’s even more concerning is that rates of mental health problems and rates of perfectionism are increasing in the United States.
The problem with perfectionism, Tyler says, is quite simply that perfection does not exist. Perfectionists are striving for a standard that is unattainable, which inherently sets them up for perceived failure. It’s a lose-lose. Tyler also says that there’s value in accepting flaws, and making mistakes are opportunities to build character and grow as a person.
“There’s a limit to striving for perfection; it’s good to a fault. We have the right intent as a culture, but we’re setting the wrong goals. Accept the mistakes—we all learn from them. Personally, I feel wiser from making mistakes. If we were perfect creatures, we would be a fairly naïve species. Mistakes build character and empathy, and they teach us how to practice compassion for ourselves and in turn, others when they mess up.” Tyler explains. “Instead of perfection, strive for teamwork. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and by working together and letting someone help you when you have a weakness, you’ll find more happiness. A team is stronger than one person trying to be perfect.”
At the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, faculty and staff treat a variety of disorders, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, and trauma- and stress-related disorders. While perfectionism is not a clinical disorder, many of these disorders often have underlying issues of perfectionism.
“There are so many ways perfectionism can drain quality of life. Often, patients think that if they try hard enough to be perfect, they’ll be the best. But what we know is they just end up trying harder. We challenge that value of perfectionism,” Tyler said. “We want patients to learn that everything in their life doesn’t have to be perfect. Send an email with a typo, take the extra time to sleep instead of study, or make a decision without agonizing over which options will get you closer to feeling near perfect. Finding those moments helps to reclaim balance.”
While Instagram’s update may not have been welcome news to all users, it might ultimately have positive repercussions. Time will tell how other social media platforms will react and if further change to benefit users’ mental health are ahead.