The Problem with Looking Good

“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else”

Judy Garland

 In my experience the need to look good and avoid looking bad causes human beings no end of misery. Once our basic needs (food, water, shelter, physical security, income) are met, taking care of looking good seems to come to the front and centre of our lives, and we get trapped on its hamster wheel.

What do I mean by ‘looking good’? Well, of course we all need to be clean and tidy and dress appropriately for the situation we are in, and the ability to do that is a key marker of our wellbeing. No, I’m talking about that innate need we have to look good in front of our friends, family, work colleagues and strangers on the street. We want to look successful, happy, ‘cool’, the kind of person they want to know or the kind of person they wished they were. We want to say wise and witty things, be the life and soul of the party (if that appeals to us), be the one that people look up to, think of as a ‘good’ person, the one who’s got it handled, who can cope in any crisis and is the perfect friend, parent, lover, family member. We want people to say:”Yes, you may have your little foibles, but they’re very few and they’re very endearing just proving that despite being human, you really are an extra special person.” It’s at the heart of that old cliche of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

This desire is so innate in us that we don’t even realise how much it dominates how we act in social situations. We feel it’s expected of us and we expect it of ourselves. You only have to look on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms to see how much energy people put in to trying to be clever, pretty, handsome, good, likeable, special, ‘the best’, the one with all their s**t together. It’s all part of this human need to belong, to be part of the ‘tribe’, to participate in a group. Or there are those that specialise at ‘looking good’ by deliberately ‘looking bad’, the rebels, anti-heroes, ones who say provocative things to provoke reactions, the shamers and the online trolls. Looking good is at the source of their need to put other people down to make themselves feel better. People will lie, cheat and sell out on themselves and others just to ‘look good’.

Looking good is also deeply inauthentic. Inauthenticity is pretending something that isn’t true – it’s a form of lying. Yet how often do we end up pretending that everything is rosy, when it isn’t so that we look good? We go to great lengths to put on the mask of success, whilst feeling empty and unfulfilled on the inside. Looking good becomes an end in itself, a reason to do things. Looking good can cause relationships to fail as it’s almost impossible to relate to someone who is pretending, who refuses to open up or be vulnerable and who is more attached to looking good than telling the truth about what’s really going on for them. We have all probably come across those ‘shiny, happy people’ who seem unbearably cheerful yet whom we know, deep in our gut, are not quite telling the truth. There is the added complication of how do we know what looks good? How do we know who to be to look good? We take our cues from our parents and teachers and from our culture and society. In recent times the added dimension of social media exacerbated false ideas about what looks good and how we ought to be and behave. This can be seen in the rising concern about the mental health of people trapped by their social media personas. Looking good is an addiction in our society and it’s making us miserable.

So what’s the alternative?

Amongst the most powerful breakthroughs my clients generate for themselves is the ability to be authentic. To say what they really think and feel – not as whining or moaning, but as heartfelt truth. When spoken from the heart, speaking truthfully about our concerns, fears, upsets and worries as well as our joys, moments of gratitude and love inspire others. Being authentically human with all that entails is actually a major contribution to those around us. When we are authentic they too can be authentic and tell their own truth. The impact on relationships and the feeling of fulfilment is profound. It’s a simple thing to do, but it’s not easy! It takes a certain willingness to step into the unknown and risk what we think will look bad. But the strangest thing is, when we speak from our hearts, what we fear looks bad turns out to be the greatest looking good of all.