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Chasing Illusions


Do you ever find yourself desiring the seemingly perfect life some people live on social media feeds? In a time when many might be struggling to find balance in their life, other's curated social media images might be giving the impression that everything is perfect and we're falling behind. This article is designed to consider whether the goals we want to achieve are realistic or simply an illusion. Read on!

This blog was written by James Machon originally published on the James Machon blog. All images by James Machon. 

We live in a world that bombards us with images of perfection, idealistic lifestyles and success. But it is not just the images that convey such perfection, the stories and articles we consume can also be subject to some pretty enthusiastic editing to boost the drama or impact.

It is very important to recognise this from a coaching perspective as it is my job to challenge people to make sure that their goals are realistic and achievable. Coaching is a positive intervention, therefore, I need to help my clients understand their goals and the reasons for wanting to achieve them. 

If the motivation for these goals originates from highly edited images and text, then people run the risk of endlessly chasing illusions which are unlikely to materialise. This is not good for our mental wellbeing and we run the risk of feeling like a failure.

Some of you may know that I am also a photographer, and almost every image on my coaching website was created by ‘yours truly’. As such, I am very familiar with the editing techniques that are used to enhance images and bring out the best in them.
I must point out that editing is essential in photography due to the management of light, but this is not the place to bore you with apertures and shutter speeds. What I am trying to get across is that I believe in editing to support authenticity or to create artistic flare.
But I have real concerns when the intention is to deceive people into believing a concept that is highly exaggerated or, quite simply, a blatant lie for commercial gain.

Throughout this blog, and to help you recognise the impact of editing, I have included a selection of images that I have produced. The left side of the image is the final edited version while the right side of the image came straight out of the camera.

Ok, so this level of editing is not exactly the crime of the century when you are just looking to showcase your work. But what about when humans are the subject of these images, especially in the world of fashion, glamour, health and fitness?

Because of my age, most of my close friends have teenage children and nearly all of them say that their child has body confidence issues. Yet, the bulk of the time, these teenagers are a picture of health and are far more photogenic than they ever realise. Their lack of confidence often comes from an underlying belief that they are ‘not good enough’ because they are comparing themselves to the ‘oh so perfect’ celebrity gracing their Instagram feed.

This is by no means exclusively linked to teenagers, many adults also follow a whole host of perfect celebrities who have also been airbrushed to the hilt.

Unless you are a photographer, then the chances are you are unaware of how powerful the editing software is these days. A few years back I did a family photoshoot which included a little lad aged about 6.
I couldn’t help but notice that he would only smile with his lips together which didn’t look very natural. I asked him if he could give me a big smile and show me his teeth, he shook his head and said: “no, I can’t because one of my two front teeth have fallen out!”
The parents were happy to show the gap in his teeth but the little lad was having none of it, so I offered to build him a tooth in photoshop. He was delighted and he proceeded to beam for the rest of the shoot.

This was fairly harmless, and the shots were only for the family, but it just shows how a quick fix in editing can change so much. So whilst the above example is innocent enough, my real concern is that people often aspire to replicate an illusion of perceived reality, AKA perfection. This can become a mental ‘carrot dangling from a stick’ exercise that prevents a person from ever feeling successful.

We are also exposed to images that show highly successful people doing things that are unlikely to have contributed to their success. For example, when someone with an amazing physique is munching on a big fat slab of cake, what message are they actually sending out to their followers?

I have had my challenges with weight over the years and images like this made me think “oh well, if they can eat that cake and have that body then so can I”. Needless to say, I ate the cake and never achieved the amazing physique, surprise surprise! Maybe the underlying agenda is to keep the audience in a physical and mental state whereby they will continue to be in awe of the cake eating Adonis.

I truly believe that we can break away from this approach and adopt a positive mindset that is challenging, realistic and supportive of our best interests. To achieve this, it is important to tune in to reality based on personal experiences and actual surroundings. Once we are in tune with what is actually going on around us, we can accurately tailor our behaviours and actions to give ourselves the best chance of success.

A good habit to adopt is to consider what, if any, underlying agenda is attached to an image, article or situation. The agenda could be commercial, political or religious, and it may not be immediately obvious.
Sometimes the agenda is very subtle, but when repeated numerous times in different ways via different mediums, then the mind can be automatically tuned in to the agenda with minimal effort. Eventually, a simple logo or strapline will be all it takes to grab our attention and trigger some thoughts. Take yourself back to July 2019, how many of the following words or phrases would have conjured up any feelings or reactions back then;

  • Second wave
  • Lockdown
  • Vaccine
  • Covid
  • Social distancing
  • BLM

What a difference a year can make, but hopefully you can recognise the power of repetition when considering the above phrases.

N.B. Please note that I am not suggesting that there is an agenda with these particular phrases, I am purely providing an example of how the repetition of information & images can change our thoughts, feelings and actions.

On a more personal level, here is a little example of me ‘chasing illusions’ which you might find amusing;

One of my big travel goals was to visit James Bond Island in Thailand. I could vividly imagine being on that tiny idyllic island, sitting on the pure white sand whilst my feet soaked in that perfect turquoise water. Now those of you who have visited that part of Thailand are probably chuckling as you know that the images of James Bond Island versus the reality are two very different things.

Firstly, here is the very average photo I took of James Bond Island……… WHICH YOU CAN ONLY SEE FROM THE ISLAND OPPOSITE…….. YOU CAN’T GO ON IT!

My dream was officially shattered from the minute I arrived.
We all had to shuffle along a tiny path with a quarter of million other tourists all jostling for position whilst armed with selfie sticks. So, there you have it, I had based one of my big travel goals on the illusion of being on a James Bond film set, and this was backed up by a fine selection of perfect images in travel magazines.

Ok, so looking back this was quite funny and I am still pleased I have been if only to laugh about it afterwards. Whilst we can sometimes laugh off an experience like this, the outcome can be far less amusing when the disappointment is linked to our health and wellbeing.
By all means, have role models in your life and use their success to help motivate your efforts, but please make sure those role models are positive and of genuine benefit to you. And please be careful that the role model, image or article in question is supportive and worthy of your motivation.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and please get in touch if you have any relevant questions.
Take care

Interested in helping others achieve their goals?

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