To strive for greatness is not an unworthy goal, but the desire to be great can be a slippery slope. While all of us have a right to live our lives in pursuit of our dreams, the pressure we now put on ourselves to be special or great can lead to insecurity, narcissism and an actual decrease in our performance and abilities. New studies of perfectionism reveal a darker side to this typically positive-seeming quality. Most likely because of their high levels of stress and anxiety, perfectionists are 51 percent more likely to die at an earlier age. Other studies show that in some cases perfectionism can contribute to suicide risk.
Perfectionism can take its toll on our quality of life as well as what we're able to accomplish. Recent research revealed that it can lead to burnout at work and school. Burnout is marked by extreme stress, chronic fatigue and increasingly poor performance, which counters the idea that perfectionism will naturally result in more success. To me, this forces the question: is our pursuit of greatness leading to actual greatness? Whether we suffer from inflated or deflated self-esteem, are we able to live up to our own expectations and demands on ourselves?
Growing up in an increasingly competitive world, young people are feeling high levels of stress and a pressure to be the "best "or to be "special" in some way that distinguishes them from the rest. Recent studies have shown overly ambitious parents can lead their children to feel intense anxiety and hinder their children's performance. This focus on accomplishment can have disabling, even dangerous, consequences. Parents who excessively drive or push their kids to "succeed" don't realize the anxiety and self-doubt they're likely imposing on them. Children can develop the belief that they are unworthy, undeserving or failures if they do not live up to perceived parental expectations. One study showed that 70 percent of young men who had died by suicide had felt "exceedingly high" demands from their parents.
On the flip side, kids who are overpraised or overindulged can have heightened levels of narcissism or entitlement, an increase in insecurity and lower levels of motivation and functioning. If a parent is constantly telling their child how special they are, this can lead kids to feel just the opposite, like they're a fraud or can't live up to their parents' definitions. Countless students are entering college and seeking help, because the stress of having to do things on their own is overwhelming. Therefore, in many ways, an inflated sense of self can be as crippling as low self-esteem, and typically, the same feelings of uncertainty and worthlessness lie at the surface of both.
Whether a parent is criticizing and pushing or overpraising and overdoing, the child most likely is not feeling seen or accepted and loved for who he or she really is. When children feel unseen and therefore unloved, they are desperate to find a way to be noticed and appreciated. People who felt excessive pressure or experienced false praise from their parents may grow up to feel that if they can just excel at something or be perfect in some way, they will get the love they never felt. They may believe that there's only one thing that's special about them, so they have to cling to it. As a result, they drive themselves beyond reason, and inevitably fall short. Even if they achieve in one area, the pressure will likely mount in another. That's because this feeling of insecurity resides in us, and we have to challenge it at its roots in order to rid ourselves of these taunting and self-shaming attitudes.
Children often pick up harmful attitudes their parents or caretakers had toward them and toward themselves. The "critical inner voice" is a term used to describe a destructive thought process we form out of these harmful attitudes. Throughout our lives, this "voice" fuels our feelings of insecurity and a pressure to perform. We may wind up feeling like we're never enough or as if we're fooling the people who like and respect us. This "voice" drives our desire to achieve perfection in various areas of our lives. Yet, no matter what we achieve, it never seems to quiet. We may feel driven all the time but never like we're there. Even once we achieve our ultimate goal, we're likely to feel empty, because the feeling of self-acceptance or love is still elusive.
For parents, there are ways to counter these trends. For example, we can strive to see our kids for who they really are, teach them to do things for themselves, praise effort over performance and encourage them to do what lights them up. We can also lead by example, fostering our own sense of self-compassion (which focuses on self-acceptance) as opposed to self-esteem (which focuses on performance). We can pursue the things we are passionate about and work hard toward our own goals. There's a balance we can strike of nurturing and offering the right kind of praise to kids, while encouraging independence, enthusiasm and hard work.
Of course, no parent can be perfect, but that's not the point nor is it the goal. Insecurity and our sense of self is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Yet, at any point in life, we can all take steps to conquer our inner critic and become more self-accepting, a subject I'll dive into in my upcoming Webinar "Overcoming Insecurity."
Very few of us are likely to be the "most" or the "best" anything. But success, happiness and a good life aren't really about this. They're about learning to accept ourselves and pursue what has meaning to us. That is the best standard we can hold for ourselves and the most valuable lesson we can pass on to our children.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the Webinar "Overcoming Insecurity."