Another Kind of Stockholm Syndrome: The Impossible Pursuit of Perfection?

The pressure in Sweden to be perfect is intense. kiuikson/Shutterstock.com

Sweden is known as a progressive, highly industrialized country that has an enviable standard of living and is at the forefront of innovation. It’s the country that produced the likes of Spotify, Skype, H&M, IKEA and Volvo. It’s a country aspiring to technological perfection within its well oiled machine—but its citizens are also aspiring to perfect lives, with damaging consequences.

“Swedish women are expected to have a fulfilling career, be healthy, take care of ourselves, pursue personal development, have a family and not delay babies for too long,” says 33-year-old Johanna Lindberg, Malmö-based journalist. “On top of all of this, at the same time and as an overriding demand, is the obligation to be happy.”

“Particularly the happiness part is very difficult to fulfill—because of all the other ideals put together, bogging us down.”

This, some might argue, is nothing different to the pressures women are facing in other parts of the world. But for Swedes there are strict precepts for diet, exercise, fashion and lifestyle that have their roots in longstanding Scandinavian expectations, something Lindberg refers to as “the Swedish code.”

“Swedes are afraid of standing out, and we live within a tight framework dictating how we ought to be. I wish more people would disregard the Law of Jante and do their own thing. That we would be allowed to become happy in our own individual way,” she says.

Little known outside of Scandinavia, The Law of Jante (Jantelagen in Swedish) is a “standard” for Scandinavians to live by, which includes ten rules. It is an idea unique to the region, and amounts to something along the lines of: “don’t believe you amount to anything; don’t believe you’re better than us.” The “us” in this equation is the collective population—the group, therefore, is more important than the individual and the individual’s success. Each person should be modest about their achievements and try not to stand out from their peers.

According to Lindberg, ‘the Swedish code’ is not discussed in Sweden; it’s one of those unspeakable social codes that everyone just knows and blindly follows. But she wants to open a dialogue about it. “It’s important to talk about things that dictate how we live,” she says. “I also believe Generation Y have more integrity than we did, they can make their own choices and walk their own path,” she adds.

In line with this, it’s usually easy to spot Swedes abroad due to their strict, homogenous and fashionable dress codes. Foreigners visiting Stockholm often remark that they sometimes get the impression that everyone has come out of a single stylish mould.

Emilia de Poret, a Swedish fashion expert who blogs for the Swedish edition of fashion magazine Elle, says that Sweden’s fashion homogeneity in particular stretches back decades.

“Surely since the 70s when a sort of ‘uniform’ was introduced in our lives. This uniform was not only about clothes but also interior design, health, exercise, child rearing, education and many other things,” she says.

“Since we’re not famous for wanting to stand out, the uniform became a perfect solution, it was accepted. And this ‘uniform’ of sorts has subsequently followed the trends,” continues de Poret.

THE EFFECTS

On the pressures to fit in, Lindberg uses the example of a new product for women that she recently made her views known on, one of the latest trends for women in Sweden: perfumed sanitary pads. “It makes me angry and tired that we’re supposed to hide one of the most important functions of our bodies at every cost,” she explains. “We never talk about the fact that women have periods. To try to conceal the slightest evidence of it and make everything artificially perfect is a step in the wrong direction. And who knows what affect those chemicals have on our reproductive systems?”

Lindberg says she was criticized by some for focusing on a “minor” issue with her opinions on perfumed sanitary pads. Indeed, it is easy to see how some may have reached that conclusion. But the Swedish pursuit of perfection has an infinitely darker history. Not too long ago, the Swedish government tried to mold its population into a strict Swedish genetic code, too.

One documented case is that of Maria Nordin, who was sterilized in 1943 at the age of 17. Nordin’s ovaries were removed on the instructions of the headmistress and a consulting physician at the reform school for girls she attended. At the time she was said to suffer a “genetic inferiority” and in the interest of the Swedish welfare state, that was best not passed on to offspring.

Sweden’s National Board of Health sterilized 1,327 Swedes that year. The program was scrapped in 1975 after 62,888 state-sponsored procedures had taken place. In 1997, the Swedish government launched a national commission to examine the history of the program and to devise a compensation plan for its victims. Sweden was not alone in this barbaric undertaking however: similar sterilization programs were carried out by mostly democratically elected governments in Norway and Finland, as well as other European countries including Austria, Belgium and Switzerland.

After modelling in her teenage years, Lindberg was deeply involved with the fashion industry as a stylist and fashion writer, regularly working 17 hour days. “It was just something that I thought I should be able to do. The drive came from within and I wanted to show magazine publishers, colleagues and family that I was as capable as everyone else,” she says. Until, at the age of 28, she realized that such a demanding lifestyle wasn’t for her and gave up her full-time career in fashion and the media.

Now, she teaches yoga, writes about sustainable development on a freelance basis and spends at least one day a week at her house in the countryside in the south of Sweden. When she’s there she looks out over the fields and spends time growing vegetables. She also tries to limit the media buzz. “I stopped reading certain blogs as I started the process of slowing down my life,” she says.

Lindberg explains that she’s turned down several great job offers that would require her to return to a stressful city life again. “I can definitely notice how the stress of demands affect close friends around me: their relationships and health. And by no means do I have all the answers yet—slowing down is a process I’m still working on,” she says.

Yet for many Swedes, slowing down is not seen as an option. Stockholm-based licensed psychologist and psychotherapist Jonas Sandberg, who specializes in stress-related therapy at Psykologgruppen Norden AB, says his clients regularly visit him for help with work-related stress. Many individuals, he says,  have burned out and cannot cope with the pressures of work any longer. Sandberg explains that a loss of meaning often accompanies this state, aggravated by the fact that Sweden is a secular society with few “fall-back options” in the form of religion.

“People who have a job work too much and the ones that don’t have a job feel stressed because of the loss of status that entails,” he says. “In Sweden people go to work and come back home without there being much of a social network around it, which also compounds stress.” As a comparison, in countries like England or Southern Europe people tend to enjoy long lunches and social events.

Sandberg says people are experiencing increased stress levels due to the higher demands on at work. For business leaders, as an example, they are expected to be sociable, democratic and equal in their leadership. To put it simply, in Sweden work and life is all about effectiveness.

A SOLUTION?

Psykologgruppen Norden offer programs that are built on Buddhist philosophy. “It’s about training the mind to concentrate and by doing that filtering out all the inputs we are bombarded with. Concentration and relaxation are two sides of the same coin. When we focus on one thing we leave out the rest,” explains Sandberg. In this regard, the mind training techniques are similar to mindfulness which is about staying centered in the “now.” The more we focus on one thing that make us feel good, we let go of other worries. Mental health is as much about training the mind as the body, according to Sandberg.

He points to two important components for coping with stress: a well-trained mind and a working life philosophy.

The practice of mindfulness includes both of these ideas. Ann Nilsson Ahnstedt, a senior mindfulness trainer at Minds Unlimited in Stockholm, describes herself as an extremely career focused workaholic during the 90s, an overachiever seeking validation solely based on performance. But one day it all stopped, she felt she couldn’t get to work and she hit the metaphorical wall. That’s when she started practicing meditation, which led to exploring mindfulness.

“In our culture we don’t value emotions and don’t dare to show them,” Ahnstedt says of Sweden. “If we have feelings we don’t want to acknowledge them: it’s so easy to numb them with a beer, exercise, sex or friends. Mindfulness is about staying with those emotions instead of distracting ourselves,” she says.

Ahnstedt agrees that there’s an excessive focus on the external; what we do, buy, and what we look like. “We are so attuned to catering to other people’s needs. It’s better to shift that outward focus inward and listen within,” she says.

Despite Sweden’s highly pressurized environment, it’s not all negative. The country is at the forefront of technological advances and social development, and is renowned for its extensive safety net in the form of social welfare. Citizens generally hold a broad, deep faith that the country’s high taxes go toward building a fairer society. For example, every form of public education is completely free of charge, leading to social mobility, using more of the country’s social capital, innovation and many other “side” benefits.

“We have a lot of potential to live amazing lives today with all the development society has gone through and with modern technology. The trick is to not get stuck in small circles and get lost within that,” says Lindberg.