I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture for eight years.
I was caught in a spiral of toxic perfectionism so severe, I couldn’t stand the thought of not reaching the impossibly high standard I set for myself, even for something as inconsequential as social media.
After quitting my job as a nutritionist and personal trainer, I gained some weight during a particularly hard time. I was mortified—after all, my former clients looked up to me. I couldn’t show them what I really looked like. I was supposed to have it all figured out. How dare I admit I was human!
So I didn’t. Instead, I just rotated between the four profile pictures that I actually liked.
For eight years!
I was a classic perfectionist. And it was slowly killing me—my self-worth, my self-acceptance, and my progress in all areas of life suffered because I was so worried others would see my flaws and label me a failure. I couldn't stand the thought of appearing weak. If I wasn’t perfect at it, I wouldn’t even try it.
Perfectionism is often lauded as a worthwhile and desirable trait, but it is more often a toxic one. It leads to setting unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. It robs us of our happiness, ruins our self-confidence, and hinders our ability to grow.
Perfectionism halts our progression.
In her new book, Silent Souls Weeping, award-winning journalist and author Jane Clayson Johnson interviewed more than 150 Latter-day Saints about their experience with depression and the dangers of how perfectionism can contribute to it.
“Toxic perfectionism fuels feelings of inadequacy and makes us inauthentic,” Johnson told the Deseret News. “It makes it hard for us to share our challenges with others because we’re always trying to maintain a facade. When we’re isolated, we are far more vulnerable to depression, suicidal thinking and, sadly, action. Toxic perfectionism isn’t just emotionally unhealthy, it's spiritually unhealthy and contrary to the gospel principle of perfection in Christ.”
A “recovering perfectionist” herself, Johnson shares the story in her book of creating an “Activity Box” during an art therapy session with one of her children. They were given a stack of magazines and told to tape pictures on the outside of the box that represented their image—the face they chose to present to the outside world. On the inside of the box, they were to tape images that represented their true self, the face that no one else saw behind closed doors. The lesson was simple—the more similar the outside of the box was to the inside of the box, the healthier your mental state. Johnson called this exercise “a wakeup call—an immediate, visual reminder of everything that is wrong with toxic perfectionism.” We attempt to live up to some arbitrary standard set by the world and lose our true self in the process.
We become inauthentic.
“When trying to live up to [an unhealthy] standard,” continues Johnson, “we are prone to pride, defeatism, debilitating comparisons, and a picture of ourselves as something we might not actually be.”
The antidote to focusing on the world’s standard for us, Johnson writes, is to instead focus on the Savior’s plan for perfection. “We don’t worry so much about the outside. We abandon pride, stop comparing ourselves to others, and don’t try to go it alone—we allow the Savior to save us.”
I was so worried about not living up to the world’s standard of beauty that I let it dictate how I felt about myself for years. It seems illogical that something as silly as a profile picture could damage my feelings of self-worth, but it did. I felt unworthy every time I looked at it.
I wanted to see myself the way the Savior sees me. I decided to fight back against the perfectionism, one step at a time, trusting in the Lord to help me overcome these tendencies.
One of my goals was to be more authentic in all ways—I wanted to better accept who I am, imperfections and all. My 2018 New Year’s goal was to change my social media profiles to more accurately reflect my current, true self. Finally, on December 31st (procrastination for the win!) I painstakingly changed my pictures to a current one, taken only moments before. It was liberating! I finally felt honest and authentic. I could finally present my true face to the world—not the one I had been hiding behind for years, but the one that had been shaped by my experiences. It seems like such a small, insignificant thing, but it was so damaging to my self-esteem to not be “good enough"—even on my own social media profile—for eight years.
And guess what happened when I reached that monumental goal of updating my profile pic?
No one cared. Why should they?
The people who loved me before I changed it loved me after. I was the one placing pressure on myself to be perfect. It was only ever a big deal in my mind thanks to the unrealistic standards I created for myself. But I learned some important lessons along the way on how to overcome toxic perfectionism.
1. Challenge your thinking.
Take a step back and listen to the words you are telling yourself. How would you respond if your sister or friend came to you with that argument? Would you remind them to be kinder to themselves? Would you point out the danger in their all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking? Give yourself that same advice to break out of your dichotomous thinking and give yourself some gray area to live life.
When you start to surrender to those perfectionist tendencies, ask yourself what is the worst that can happen in this situation if you're not perfect. Typically, the "worst" is really not that bad. It's rarely worth the enormous mental struggle we endure to prevent it from happening.
Satan tries to make us feel like we have to be perfect at everything, right now, or we are a colossal failure. He wants us to feel inadequate so we will quit trying! Challenge your thinking and give yourself room to make mistakes and grow. As President Russell M. Nelson has taught, here in mortality, perfection is still "pending."
2. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Too often perfectionists are so consumed with how others view them that they refuse to put themselves in any position where they might look foolish. Failure is their biggest fear. The solution? Get better at failing! Stretch yourself. Try new things. Challenge the norm. Practice failing! Acknowledge the fear, but don’t let it keep you from getting out of your comfort zone. When we treat doing something new as simply an interesting experiment, rather than as a reflection of our worth, we give ourselves license to fail and thus increase our capacity to grow.
3. Avoid comparison.
Scrolling through social media and seeing others with their flawlessly coiffed hair, impeccably behaved children, and spotlessly clean (and inexplicably white) house, it’s enough to send anyone into a comparison frenzy. We can’t help but notice the difference between what they have and what we don’t.
I call this the Instagram spiral—suddenly all those blessings we were so grateful for moments ago seem mediocre by contrast. We were perfectly happy with our weekend camping trip until we saw our friend’s three-week vacation to Europe. We were so proud of our 10 pounds lost until we saw our cousin bouncing a quarter off his abs in his latest workout selfie.
Comparing ourselves to others can be cancerous and soul-crippling if we let it. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
One way to avoid the comparison spiral is to remind ourselves that we are only seeing a snapshot—one frame of their life at that moment. We don’t see the moment after the picture is taken, where the toddler pours a bowl of cereal on his sister’s head or that massive pile of dishes in the sink of the supposedly spotless house. We don't see our friend scrimping and saving for two years to afford their European adventure. We don’t see the debilitating battle with anxiety our cousin endures on a daily basis, not knowing that just leaving the house and going to the gym each day is a personal victory for him.
We only see the glossy, manufactured parts on social media. Thus, it is the height of unfairness to compare our very worst to someone else's carefully curated best.
So why not help each other break the cycle? Be more authentic in your social media posts. Present your true self, flaws and all. When we show our vulnerability and admit our lives aren't perfect, it can inspire others to do the same. We realize we aren't alone and can help lift each other up.
4. Discover your spiritual gifts.
We were all given different talents and gifts. How often do we compare our biggest weakness to someone else's biggest strength? We can avoid this trap by focusing on all the blessings and talents we do have and acknowledging the Lord’s hand in our life. He made us the way we are for a reason. He gave us specific spiritual gifts to bless the lives of others.
We can all benefit from the invitation issued by President Nelson in the October 2018 general conference:
"You have special spiritual gifts and propensities. Tonight I urge you, with all the hope of my heart, to pray to understand your spiritual gifts—to cultivate, use, and expand them, even more than you ever have. You will change the world as you do so."
5. Increase self-compassion.
Be kind to yourself. The words you say to yourself matter. Criticize yourself less. Talk to yourself the way your best friend talks to you, with uplifting love and compassion.
“As children of God, we should not demean or vilify ourselves, as if beating up on ourselves is somehow going to make us the person God wants us to become. No! With a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness always in our hearts, I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants for Primary children or anyone else who honestly sings, 'I’m trying to be like Jesus.'"
6. Focus on the positive and learn from the negative.
It takes practice, but when we actively concentrate on shifting our focus to see the positive it can eventually become our default point-of-view. Explore what you did well and acknowledge it. Make a list of all your good traits. Focus on your talents. Celebrate your victories no matter how small. Practice looking for the positive traits in yourself and others and you'll start to see the whole world in a better light.
Even then, we will make mistakes. But don't ignore the negative outcome—learn from it!
When I worked at a news channel in New York, we would hold a “postmortem” after every broadcast—we highlighted what we did well and then examined areas where we could improve the next broadcast.
When things don't turn out as planned, treat it as an experiment and hold a postmortem. What did you learn from the experience? What did you do right? What could you improve? What is the takeaway?
We will all fail; we will all make mistakes. Failing opens the door for growth! We progress by learning from those mistakes.
7. Reevaluate your impossible standards.
Sometimes, we just need a reality check. Sometimes “good enough” really is good enough! Every Christmas, I bake my nephews’ favorite chocolate chip cookie pie and, every year, I end up making it two or three times to get it “just right.” (It has become a family joke every holiday to see how many times Ashli will remake the cookie pie!) But in reality—it’s just a pie. No one cares if it’s perfect (besides me.) Even when it’s not “just right,” you’re still literally eating a giant chocolate chip cookie in a pie. That is good enough. Especially for hungry teenage boys!
8. Cut out sources that reinforce toxic perfectionism.
Social media can be a great way to stay in contact with others, but it’s often a huge source of comparison and can increase our dissatisfaction with our life. So turn it off. Unsubscribe. Sign out. Delete the app. Give yourself a break from social media and any source that makes you feel "less than"—your well-being and self-esteem are worth more than a few likes or videos of tap-dancing kittens.
9. Know your worth.
The people in your life love you for you. It’s not conditional on how clean your house is, how much money you make, how well-behaved your children are, or if your team wins the state championship. They love you for who you are and the way you make them feel. This was the hardest lesson for me. My clients didn’t respect me because I looked a certain way; they respected me for my depth of knowledge and my empathy. I could relate because of my struggles! My nephews don’t love me because I can make a perfect pie (because clearly I can’t); they love me because I love them enough to make it in the first place.
10. Focus on grace.
Too often we take the Savior’s admonition to “be ye therefore perfect” and impose our own timetable on it—we feel we have to be perfect right now. Instead, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland teaches us that we should focus on becoming perfect “eventually." Even then, perfection will only come through the enabling grace Jesus Christ offers us:
"'Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him … ,' Moroni pleads. 'Love God with all your might, mind and strength, then … by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.' Our only hope for true perfection is in receiving it as a gift from heaven—we can’t 'earn' it. Thus, the grace of Christ offers us not only salvation from sorrow and sin and death but also salvation from our own persistent self-criticism.”
Images from Shutterstock
Read more from Jane Clayson Johnson on this topic in her eye-opening new book, Silent Souls Weeping: Depression—Sharing Stories, Finding Hope, available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.