You may be a mess… but it is beautiful

Exhibition: More than 50,000 people took part at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

So says new research by a group of German psychologists. It comes as a 12-month exhibition closed on Monday in which people were invited to put their deepest fears up on a gallery wall.

I’m overworked and underpaid. I’m afraid of being yelled at online. I don’t have a home for my boys. I’ve relapsed three times since trying to become sober. I have no idea what I’m doing — ever.

These words were all written and put on display at an art exhibition in New York City over the past year. Visitors were asked to describe both what made them anxious and what made them hopeful. The anonymous notes gradually began covering the walls of the gallery.

This week new psychological research suggests that we should not be so reluctant to admit our weaknesses. Showing flaws, it suggests, can make people more attractive, not less. Scientists are calling this “the beautiful mess effect”.

As the author Brené Brown puts it in her book Daring Greatly: “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us.”

One major reason for this fear is the rise of perfectionism, which means the refusal of any standard short of perfect.

A study of thousands of American, Canadian and British university students found that between 1989 and 2016, self-oriented perfectionism (a desire to be perfect) rose by 10%. Socially prescribed perfectionism (wanting to live up to the expectations of others) rose by 33%. Other-oriented perfectionism (expecting others to be perfect) rose by 16%.

The authors of the study blame a society which is increasingly focused on “self-interest and competition”. From social media to exams, “young people can be sifted, sorted and ranked by peers, teachers and employers.”

“We live in a uniquely unsettled moment of technological, political, and social flux. Awash in endless currents of information delivered by glowing screens, each new headline, discovery, and development brings a fresh opportunity for hope or anxiety, depending upon our individual attitudes and philosophies,” add the artists behind the exhibition, A Monument For The Anxious and Hopeful.

Perfect storm

So is it time to start being more honest about our weaknesses? Maybe. But it has risks: studies also find that if we have a low opinion of someone, their vulnerabilities make us like them even less. How do you feel about your friends when you see them struggle? What about people you dislike?

And what of the upsides? The Sistine Chapel; the iPhone; Roger Federer’s forehand. We would have none of these things without people who strive to achieve the perfect, even if they are doomed always to fall just a fraction short.

You Decide

  1. Do you dream of being perfect?
  2. Is perfectionism a force for good or bad?


  1. Time to do your own version of the New York exhibition. As a class, each anonymously write down one thing that makes you anxious and one that makes you hopeful. Put your answers on post-it notes, and display them on a wall. Does reading the responses change the way you feel about your classmates?
  2. Write a paragraph explaining why you think perfectionism is rising among young people.

Some People Say...

“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”

Haruki Murakami

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Perfectionist tendencies (such as being self-critical and lack of self-compassion) are a strong predictor of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and thinking about suicide. According to the World Health Organisation, record numbers of young people are struggling with mental illness. Being a perfectionist has also been linked to early death.
What do we not know?
Why perfectionism and mental health problems are rising, or whether they have a direct connection with each other. (After all, not every perfectionist has a mental illness, or vice versa.) Social media, drugs, exams, capitalism and difficult family lives have all been blamed for rising mental health problems among young people, but there is no definitive answer.

Word Watch

Art exhibition
A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful was on display at the Rubin Museum of Art from February last year until this week.
The study was published by the University of Bath and the York St John University in December 2017.
Low opinion
This is known as the “pratfall effect”. When you admire somebody, their weaknesses make them seem human and relatable. When you do not know them or have a negative opinion of them, their weaknesses are repelling.
Sistine Chapel
The ceiling of this small chapel in Rome was painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512, and is often considered the greatest work of art ever made.
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple at the time of the iPhone’s creation, was apparently such a perfectionist that he would call employees in the middle of the night, enraged about types of screws.
Hitting the ball by bringing your tennis racket across your body, palm first. Federer’s is one of the most powerful in tennis.


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