According to the World Health Organization, a record number of young people worldwide are suffering from serious depression or anxiety disorders. In some sections of society, there is a tendency to dismiss this trend as the product of an over-indulged, over-entitled, and over-sensitive “snowflake generation.”
To the contrary, there is growing evidence that the increase in psychological ill-health of young people may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in. Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement, how they look and what they should own. Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.
Yet perfection is an impossible goal. Those who become preoccupied with it inevitably set themselves up for failure and psychological turmoil. They become obsessed with winning the validation of others and demonstrating their worth through flawless performance after flawless performance. They ruminate chronically about their imperfections, brood over what could have been or should have been, and experience considerable anxiety and even shame and guilt about their perceived inadequacies and unworthiness.
The idea that perfectionism might be behind the recent rise in serious mental illness was the impetus for our latest piece of research published in Psychological Bulletin, we wanted to answer a basic but important question; is perfectionism rising among American, Canadian, and British college students?
To answer it, we tested for generational changes in college students’ responses to the Multidimensional Perfectionism scale from 1989 to 2016. This scale was developed by leading psychologists in the area of perfectionism, Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, and measures self-oriented perfectionism (excessively high personal expectations), socially prescribed perfectionism (excessively high social expectations), and other-oriented perfectionism (excessively high expectations of others). As college students are approximately the same age, data collected at different time points using the same instrument allowed us to assess if these dimensions of perfectionism were changing over time.
In all, we retrieved data from 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students. Our findings supported our hypotheses. Between 1989 and 2016, college students’ levels of self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism all increased by statistically significant amounts. Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others.
Perhaps the most concerning trend documented in our analysis is that of socially prescribed perfectionism. It increased at twice the rate of self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism. It is also the form of perfectionism that exhibits the largest association of all the dimensions with a host of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social phobia, and suicidal thoughts. The increase in socially prescribed perfectionism makes for a compelling backdrop for almost epidemic levels of serious mental illness in young people.
Broadly, we consider our findings to raise important questions about how we are structuring society and whether our society’s heavy emphasis on social comparison, and the sorting, sifting and ranking that follows, is benefitting young people. Coupled with research demonstrating the destructive effects of perfectionism on mental health, our findings are also potentially a forewarning for schools, universities, and employers who may find managing the welfare of young people becomes increasingly important.
With this in mind, we have some tips for teachers, lecturers, and managers that might help create a culture which may help alleviate the impact of perfectionism. Note that we are not clinical psychologists. If you encounter someone experiencing mental health difficulties, or indeed are experiencing them yourself, support should be sought from an appropriately trained mental health professional. We offer these tips in the hope of aiding those who are simply seeking to better manage perfectionism in their own lives, or mentor or coach others who are struggling with the pressure to be perfect.
Failure is not weakness
The energy behind perfectionism comes largely from a desire to avoid failure. When facing an important exam, crucial deadline, or business pitch, a perfectionist sees each opportunity primarily as an opportunity to fail. Fear of failure is a function of their excessive standards and desire to do things well. Their fear is that if they don’t do it perfectly, they’ll expose some inner weakness or frailty. That’s why those with higher perfectionism generally experience more stress in their daily lives. This stress then can create other mental and physical health problems.
When students or employees seem stressed out by a looming opportunity, help them shift their focus away from the disastrous possibilities of what might go wrong, and towards what they might learn from it instead. Recalibrate their goals downward and work with them to see stressful events as opportunities to develop.
And if they do fail? People with higher levels of perfectionism will typically be ambitious, hard-working, and diligent. A little bit of compassion and support when things don’t go well will help keep them that way.
In adopting excessively high standards, those with higher levels of perfectionism set themselves up for the failure that is so damaging for their self-esteem. These individuals may need help recognizing what is realistically achievable and require guidance on setting appropriate goals. Advocate perseverance, flexibility, and diligence. These are desirable qualities and do not come with the fears that follow the pursuit of perfection. Meticulousness can sometimes be required, and this is fine, but paralysis will follow if the goal is perfection and not a more reasonable goal.
Done is better than perfect
Not only do high goals impede success for perfectionists, but so too does their tendency to postpone difficult tasks. When failure is shattering, moving forward on tasks that carry a high risk of failure becomes difficult. Perfectionists often tend to procrastinate because they cannot fail on tasks that they haven’t started.
Especially when deadlines loom, this paralysis can be accompanied by rumination and brooding that is damaging to psychological health. Procrastination is not something that perfectionists voluntarily disclose, but the link is supported by research. If it is apparent that a fear of failing is holding students or employees back, encourage them to take small, manageable steps. Getting started is the hardest part. Avoid overthinking. Reminding them of previous experiences and successes might help; but being impatient, demanding or critical won’t.
Perfectionism is a misleading trait. It promises meticulousness, hard work, and dedication but, although it can deliver motivation and performance, also delivers mental health difficulties. Our research suggests that perfectionism is increasing. Expect the frequency of these difficulties to do the same.
Thomas Curran, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the University of Bath.
Andrew P. Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor at York St. John University.