At some point in childhood, most of us came across the realisation that the world is conditionally accepting of us and we must earn love by being ‘good’. For the people who grew up in an environment where the unstable love from our caregivers felt conditional, unpredictable and monopolised, there was no escaping the binary thinking of only either being a ‘good child’ or a ‘bad child’.
As confused children on the receiving end of mixed messages from adults we deserved better from, when we are ‘bad’, rejection and disproportionate scolding is used to make us understand the weight of our behaviour—but instead of the outcome actually being better behaviour, it often results in self-loathing.
When you hate yourself, you create a tried-and-tested self that gains the approval, love and favour of others. The purpose of this false identity is to protect your real, hidden self from re-experiencing that abandonment. So my question is: Can perfection (both online and in real life) truly protect us?
The problem is, when these neglected children grow up, they tend to have issues regarding self-worth due to never having known unconditional acceptance. Presenting perfection online can therefore be rewarding as it often replaces the praise we never got as children.
What’s different about the praise in adulthood is that, a lot of the time, it translates to power—and in an age where the most interaction we have with other people is through the internet, being visibly liked by many people makes you powerful and therefore, finally worthy of love.
But when things go wrong and we do something netizens consider ‘bad’, the pile-ons, mass unfollows and experiencing character destroyal by complete strangers feels oddly familiar to the disproportionate scolding from the adults who once called you a ‘bad child’. This time round though, the scolding feels more traumatic because instead of two adults calling you bad, it’s thousands of adult strangers tormenting you and questioning your moral character.
Beyond outward projections of attempted perfection, there is also an inward grapple that is often overlooked and, in my opinion, worth observing. The internal feedback loop of shame and self-blame often presents itself as a form of hyperfocus. It leads you to obsess over how you could have done something differently and resent yourself for not having manoeuvred a situation in a manner that the current version of you, who now knows better, would’ve done.
This keeps you in a spiral of thinking you’ll never be good enough, plaguing yourself with endless ‘if onlys’ and ‘I should haves’. Other times, the shame and self-blame presents itself as you try to find ways to prove to others that you are lovable—even if on false terms built upon a version of you that exists because of approval, not authenticity.
We know that ‘perfect’ people aren’t happy but we still want to be like them. Why? Because it’s the closest we’ll probably ever get to the happy ending we’ve all been promised. And because looking happy is more accessible than being and staying happy.
But what do we tell ourselves that perfection is actually protecting us from? Because clearly, the fear of judgement and rejection is as universal as the human desire to experience nourishment and pleasure. Being scared of not being good enough has so much governance over our lives, that when the fear really takes us there, we are prepared to embody the lie that we have told ourselves to such a degree of realness that often times people who encounter us can’t even tell that we are in performance of a self-assigned role.
For some of us, we develop a codependency to constantly having achievements and moments we can brag about on social media as proof we are ‘good enough’. We put all our energy into getting as much attention as we can, as a version of ourselves that we only embody when the internet is watching.
Maybe we’re all in our own curated reality shows? So when it comes to consuming the lives of other people who are showing you exactly what they want you to see, remember: no matter how good it looks, don’t envy what you don’t understand, because you don’t know what they’re tolerating to have a seemingly perfect life.