The one word you need to ditch to help your mental wellbeing

We all dream of one day writing the 'perfect' book or living in the 'perfect' house or finding the 'perfect' partner. Bestselling author Christina Dalcher fell into a 'perfect' trap too

I think we’re in a crazy world – and I’m not talking about the world of lockdowns and pandemics and StaySafeStayHome hashtags. I’m talking about the normal world, one I hope we’ll be returning to soon while at the same time hoping we can return to one a little different.

Because when you write a novel that’s part thriller and part horror, with a healthy dose of real-life facts about the American eugenics movement, and when that book, Q,  is due to hit the shelves during a pandemic, you wonder if maybe you should have written a feel-good rom-com. You wonder if you should have written anything else. I should have written the perfect book.

As a writer, there are other times I wish I were perfect. When a one-star review hits my Amazon page. When a Tweeter slams my book for being the worst read of the century. Believe me, you see enough of this kind of thing, and sooner or later, you start to believe it. You internalise, or that’s what the mental health experts say. And for your mental wellbeing, that’s not good.

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But enough about the writer’s life. We’re not the only ones who wish upon the star of perfection.

Parents do it; children do it. Students do it; teachers do it. Workers do it; bosses do it. Politicians and social media users and neighbours do it. Now that we’ve all got that old Eartha Kitt song stuck in our heads, let’s talk seriously about the relentless quest for flawlessness… Give it up, friends, for your own mental wellbeing, give it up!

Turn back on the perfection path and choose a different route. Shrug your shoulders and change gears. Poke your head outside your window without any makeup on and with crazy-sticking-out-in-all-directions hair, and show the world the real you. Post a picture you took even if the light is lousy and there’s lamppost sticking out of someone’s head. Do a downward-facing-dog in your next online yoga class without worrying about whether your bum is at exactly the right angle. Let your kids wear mismatched clothes. Stop dusting the furniture. Sing off-key.

The other day, I spoke to a friend of mine who is a professor and top researcher in the field of counselling education. We discussed how social media has piled on the pressure: think, for a minute, of the competition for likes and hearts and stars and shares.

We laughed about selfie-shame, that unfortunate side effect of the twelve-inch distance between face and camera that increases our nose size by a billion per cent. (Reality check: when have any of us ever allowed someone with a camera to take our photo from a foot away? My answer is something like ‘less than never.’)

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My friend also suggested something I hadn’t thought about: modeling. Not the catwalking variety, but everyday modeling – the subconscious and purposeful behaviours we engage in all the time.

These behaviours have consequences. Consequences for our mental wellbeing and, if you’re a parent, our children’s. If we groan at the mirror and lament our roots or muse if that’s a wrinkle or a pillow crease and if our children hear us, it doesn’t matter how many times we tell them not to worry too much about their looks. If we shy away from a group photograph (ha, remember them!) because our makeup isn’t right, what good does it do to push our best friend in front of the camera with a cheery ;Oh, you look fabulous, darling!’? If we brag about our genius-level exam results, we really have no business reassuring our kids if they bomb a test.

Actions speak louder, remember?

And now, turning to our present world, avoiding the pressure to be perfect matters more than ever. We hear a lot about kindness these days, about being kind to others and alert to the problems of people around us. A good place to start, though, is by being kind to ourselves. Look in the mirror and say, ‘Wow. I’ve got interesting eyes.’ Pick up an old poem you wrote and remind yourself that you (yes, you!) created something out of thin air, stringing words together, and weaving a brand new thing. Refuse to iron that dress; laugh at the creases in the cloth. Burn dinner and order takeaway.

If you’re a novelist, like me, forget about trying to please the entire world. Forget about perfect. Save your mental wellbeing. Perfect belongs in the realm of superheroes, a task for Wonder Woman, and even Wonder Woman at the very least must have been uncomfortable in that all-in-one bodycon number.

*Christina Dalcher’s novel (Harper Collins) is on sale now

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