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 have no idea what I’m doing — ever.

These words were all written for an art exhibition in New York City over the past year. Visitors were asked to write what made them anxious and what made them hopeful. Around 50,000 responses were collected and pinned to the wall.

The messages were anonymous, so people shared thoughts and fears that they would usually keep hidden.

But research suggests that admitting our weaknesses should not be so scary. In fact, it often makes us more attractive, not less.

Recent studies have found that people do not like asking for help or admitting they made a mistake. Yet when they imagine others doing it, they see it as “good”. Researchers call this “the beautiful mess effect”.

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

According to a study of thousands of university students published last year, perfectionism has been rising for 30 years, despite being linked to anxiety and depression.

The authors of the study blame a society which is too focused on “self-interest and competition”, including on social media.

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 do not like someone, their vulnerabilities makes 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?


  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?

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?
According to the World Health Organisation, record numbers of young people are struggling with mental illness. Perfectionism has also been rising since at least 1989.
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.)

Word Watch

Art exhibition
A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful at the Rubin Museum of Art.
The study was published by the University of Bath and the York St John University in December 2017.
Sistine Chapel
Painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512.
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple at the time of the iPhone’s creation, was an extreme perfectionist.
Hitting the ball by bringing your tennis racket across your body, palm first.

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