Are We Raising Anxiety-Riddled Unhappy Perfectionists?

by | Jun 24, 2020


What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is “broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” Source.

According to Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia, “setting high standards and aiming for excellence can be positive traits, but perfectionism is dysfunctional because it’s underscored by a person’s sense of themselves as permanently flawed or defective. One way they try to correct that is by being perfect.” Being a perfectionist isn’t all that healthy; high levels of perfectionism “are correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia.” Source.

Perfectionist tendencies are increasing, likely driven by various societal factors. More on that below. First, it’s important to dig a bit more into what exactly perfectionism is. It is multidimensional and is broken down into three general types:

1. Self-Oriented Perfectionism: This type is of perfectionism is what we usually think of when we hear the term. It is focused on the perfectionist’s own behavior and includes “behaviors such as setting exacting standards for oneself and stringently evaluating and censuring one’s own behavior.” Source. This type of perfectionist has the drive to attain perfection in their own actions and are very motivated to avoid failures. These perfectionists tie their self-worth to achievement and find the enjoyment of accomplishments to be fleeting.

2. Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: This type of perfectionism relates to perceived external pressure and expectations to achieve. “Socially prescribed perfectionism entails people’s belief or perception that significant others have unrealistic standards for them, evaluate them stringently, and exert pressure on them to be perfect.” Source. These perfectionists believe that they must display perfection to gain the approval of others. This typically is the most pernicious form of perfectionism and is linked to a number of other psychological issues including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Source.

3. Other-Oriented Perfectionism: This type of perfectionist has unrealistic expectations of others and wants others to achieve perfection. Nothing other people do is good enough unless it is perfect. “This behavior is essentially the same as self-oriented perfectionism; however, the perfectionistic behavior is directed outward.” Source. These are not fun people to be around. “A coworker may constantly try to tell you how to do your job, a parent or other family member may insist they know what’s best for your life and try to dictate your choices for you, or your partner may even nitpick and push you to make changes on how to be ‘better’ in order to meet their specific ideas of what perfection may be.” Source.

Note that perfectionism is not the same as merely being competitive or striving for excellence. Rather, perfectionism means holding yourself (or others) to standards that are impossible to achieve or maintain.

Perfectionism is Increasing

There is evidence that perfectionism has been increasing. A study out of the UK found that “the drive to be perfect in body, mind and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations, which may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health.” Source. The study found that between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented perfectionism score increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed increased by 33 percent and other-oriented increased by 16 percent.

What might be causing the increase in perfectionism? Researchers in this area suggest that the rise has various inter-related causes:

Increasing individualism. We’ve seen a rise of Neoliberalism in the west which has “seen the dominance of collectivism progressively give way to a wave of competitive individualism. For example, more recent generations of college students in the United States report higher levels of narcissism, extraversion, and self-confidence than previous generations.” Our cultural values have shifted over time to emphasize competitiveness and individualism. U.S. college students were found to be more perfectionist than U.K. or Canadian students and the researchers think that the U.S.’s greater emphasis on individualism is a cause of this difference.

Meritocracy. The idea that success is based on merit and hard work can provide motivation but it also can be harmful. According to Prof. Hewitt, “meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve [which can lead to]increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves.”

According to the UK study,

Over time, then, meritocracy raises the bar of society’s expectations such that they become unattainable to the majority—especially for young people, and especially in terms of educational achievement. According to meritocracy, those who reach the top schools and colleges, or gain entry to occupations offering the most profitable employment, receive their due rewards of wealth and social status. For those who do not reach such educational and professional heights, the doctrine of meritocracy dictates they are less deserving and their poor achievement reflects their inadequate personal abilities. The doctrine of neoliberal meritocracy therefore falsely and insidiously connects the principles of educational and professional achievement, status, and wealth with innate personal value.”

Social Media Use Doesn’t Help. According to the lead researcher of the study, “Millennials feel pressure to perfect themselves partly out of social media use that leads them to compare themselves to others.” Source. Comparisons to others on social media can lead to a lack of satisfaction with their bodies and social isolation. Social media reinforces the idea that “the perfect life and lifestyle — encapsulated by achievement, wealth, and social status—are available to anyone provided you try hard enough.”

Related IFOD: Why Facebook and Other Social Media Makes you Less Happy

How We Parent. Over the past 50 years parenting has shifted. “On top of their own duty to succeed, they are also responsible for the successes and failures of their children. Should a young person be unable to navigate in increasingly competitive social milieu, then it is not just their failure, it is also the parents’ failure too. This internalized concern for one’s child’s success has been labeled child-contingent self-esteem and is evident in the rise of parental expectations for their children’s achievements which, across the industrialized world, are at extremes that psychologists have noted are cause for concern.” Source. There is evidence of increasingly controlling behavior by parents along with increasingly high expectations and standards.

The Result of these factors is that “recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations. Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.” Source.

What to do about all this? There are no easy answers and some tips will be the subject of a future IFOD.


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