Beauty or the Beast

The front cover of this week’s New Scientist is an article about perfection, and inside it warns that we are now experiencing an “epidemic of perfectionism” which the magazine writers say pose a “serious, even deadly problem.”

In this environment, children more than any are being hit particularly hard, with a warning that young people today have to experience pressures which youngsters in the past were never exposed to.

Thomas Curran at the University of Bath, who studies perfectionism, warned: “A generation ago, governments took more responsibility. Now students take on their own the risk for success and failure. They have to pay for university, they have to take part in more standardised testing from a younger age and have more competition for good schools and colleges.”

But he warns above all that social media is setting unrealistic targets for young people in almost every other aspect of their daily lives.

Curran adds: “If you throw a dodgy economy into the mix, then you have an unprecedented storm of pressure to reach unattainable targets.”

This week, in her blog, psychologist Cynthia Maudine, who is specialised in cognitive behavioural therapy with children, warns that perfectionism is rooted in childhood, and parents have a responsibility to help children avoid treading the path of perfectionism that ends with mental illness and despair.

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“I recently treated a young woman coming to terms with severe illness. She was thin. Painfully thin. And like a symptom of her thinness was her loneliness. The two conditions were twin aspects of each other. A few minutes into the meeting she asked the question I was dreading. Do I think she is ugly now that she is ill? Looking into her large expressive eyes, I struggled to find a reply.

“We live in a world where we are constantly confronted with the extremes of the equation, beautiful versus ugly, right versus wrong, true or false, smart or stupid. All of these are extremes of the equation that we use because they help us put people into boxes, labelling them is an efficient way of categorising what we are dealing with. We oversimplify the issues around these labels because we need to have control of what we are dealing with. We assign values to the extremes with supreme confidence, yet in doing so we are part of a silent conspiracy that everybody should be talking about, yet which nobody is.

“We act as if by labelling, we have knowledge of the truth, yet relatively it’s all so insubstantial, a fake reality we make for ourselves generated by smoke and mirrors to help the game to continue.

“For our children, the consequences of our deception can be catastrophic. Not yet contaminated by the social definitions we set ourselves of things such as beauty or ugliness, they are not hampered by such limitations. Give a child a broom, and they will turn it into a horse and gallop around the garden. Give them a piece of cloth, and it will become a cloak to garb a beautiful princess.

“These fluid perceptions are possible because children can afford to be totally subjective in what they accept and not just for themselves, but also in accepting the point of view of other children. They have no social authority to establish standards. In the playground worlds they inhabit, there’s enough room for diversity, there is enough room for being different.

“In this spirit of adventure, they always look beyond what they see. Kate does not play with Tricia, she is Princess Anna rescuing Snow Queen Elsa or the fairy godmother creating a magical dress to help Cinderella go to the ball. Tom does not play with Joe.  He is Sam playing with this transformer robot pal Bumblebee, or George vanquishing a dragon.

“Children find it so much easier to have reasons to spend time with others because they are not limited by the labels that so restrict adults. In the freedom of play, children build connections through their actions that transcend our narrow physical boundaries.

“Only as we grow older do we learn that different is bad. Our prehistoric survival mechanism, that teaches us to reject the different because it might be a threat, kicks in and so we label in order to define the different, and to reject it. In this process, ugly becomes bad and slowly but surely, we adopt the lazy prehistoric attitude.

“But from our children we can learn that in life our purpose is to create, and we should not stop learning to explore and push the boundaries like children do.

“We are all under so much pressure to be seen and admired for the roles we could play, so why don’t we play them? We need to let the characters inside us free, because beauty, truth, intelligence and many of the extremes we aspire to can be discovered by playing. We should be constantly pushing the boundaries, moving all the time and exploring, and throwing ourselves into reliving our lives as we want them to be, rather than trying to define something that can be quantified by others.

“For our children, the way they value things is a living moving thing, like a river, not stagnant and rotting like a swamp.

“Many factors define beauty and children have a natural ability to do this, and so we should try and retain an open mind and not reject the different. The survival mechanisms that we had, which orders us to categorise and then reject the unusual and different, no longer apply, and we need to learn and adapt to the new if we are to find true happiness in our modern world.”

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