The Duck Syndrome: Do You Have It?

The perfect life. What does that look like for you? A perfect look? A perfect family? Perfect grades? The perfect friend group surrounding you? The perfect prayer life? This week, another article in the New York Times was written detailing the pressures of perfectionism that college students face. It’s not the first one that’s been written, highlighting once again the pressure that often leads to anxiety, depression, shame, and even suicide. After a popular student’s unexpected suicide at Penn State, a task force was formed to examine mental health on campus and, among other things, it “recognized a potentially life-threatening aspect of campus culture: Penn Face.”

It continues:

“An apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed, Penn Face is so widely employed that it has showed up in skits performed during freshman orientation.

While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles. “

Can’t we all relate to this “Duck Syndrome” at times, or to the desire to be “effortlessly perfect”? We all put up fronts, images (hello, Instagram) of ourselves that make us look like we have it all together. We try really hard to do godly things, program our kids’ behavior in public, manicure the front lawn, get our hair and makeup ‘just right’, and make sure that we’re living up to the standards we think others expect of us – or that we expect of ourselves.

But if we’ve lived only a few days in the real world, we soon see that this striving is to no avail. When everyone around you seems so amazing and put together, we compare and notice all the millions of ways our life doesn’t quite measure up. Who are we compared to them? We are all paddling frantically under our gliding, calm faces. We are all like ducks, and we’re wearing ourselves out just trying to keep up.

But you can’t keep up. That’s why we need God’s grace. Instead of looking inward, instead of trying to impress, what if we remembered that perfection isn’t required of us? We are made perfect only in Jesus – the only one who is perfect and the only one in whom we can boast.

So I want to practice imperfection, of being in a perpetual state of need – because that’s my reality. Here’s what this might look like…

  1. Share your struggles (and actually think about what they are). What’s actually going on in my heart? My marriage? My family? My relationships? What are my doubts? Tell friends the sorry state of your soul without Jesus.
  1. Ask for help. This implies vulnerability, because it feels as though we’re a burden to someone else, and that makes us feel guilty – something we need to choose to ignore.
  1. Let others see you in your pajamas and without makeup, and your house without the vacuum that it so desperately needs. You don’t live in a Pottery Barn catalog.
  1. Don’t hide the fact that sometimes, you give your kids regular Goldfish crackers rather than the organic, GMO-free Cheddar Bunnies, or that you let your kids eat the mystery hot dog rather than the grass-fed all beef one from the farmer’s market.

Trying harder won’t make us do everything right. Trying harder won’t make us perfect. It will wear us out and plunge us into a place where God’s grace can’t flood over us. May we care more about what’s under the surface, the true state of our hearts, than the image gliding forth.


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