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Perfectionism is Spreading, and It's Hurting Us

by Katie Moritz
January 12, 2018 | Health

Isn't perfectionism a gift? You can trick yourself into thinking it is. But as anyone who has struggled with their own tendencies knows, perfectionism is not an unmitigated good.

rewire pbs living perfectionism
Source: Review of General Psychology

The desire to be perfect—in body, mind and career—is more pervasive in the millennial generation than any generation before it, new research suggests, and it's hurting our mental health.

Perfectionism brought on by societal pressures has increased by 33 percent, a full third, since 1989, researchers at the University of Bath and York of St. John University discovered.

What does that mean? Perfectionistic tendencies have long been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide, all of which are also on the rise.

What's your brand of perfectionism?

Perfectionism isn't the same from one person to the next. There are three different types, all stemming from different sources of pressure: self-oriented perfectionism, or an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed perfectionism, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and other-oriented perfectionism, or placing unrealistic standards on others. If you call yourself a perfectionist, maybe you experience one and not the other two; maybe you experience all three.

Researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill analyzed data on more than 41,000 American, Canadian and British college students from the late 1980s to 2016 to learn how perfectionism has changed over time.

The data revealed that college-age people have become more and more perfectionistic over time. Over the past 27 years, socially prescribed perfectionism increased by 33 percent, other-oriented increased by 16 percent and self-oriented increased by 10 percent.

Toxic comparisons

What's putting the pressure on young people to be perfect? It could be social media, the researchers think. The data suggests millennials are comparing themselves to what they see online, causing them to be more dissatisfied with their appearances and more socially isolated. Other research has shown that social media is stressing us out, and that quitting platforms like Facebook could make us happier.

Today's perfectionists are also feeling pressure to earn money, get a good education and reach ambitious career goals. No wonder, as many millennials struggle with debt that is setting back traditional adulthood milestones and worry about supporting their parents in retirement.

rewire pbs living perfectionism
Source: University of Connecticut

On top of that, today's college students are trying to maintain perfect GPAs, more so than students of the past. They're constantly comparing their grades to their peers', the data showed.

Curran believes this represents a hike in meritocracy—an achievement-based value system—in millennials, and that universities are encouraging unnecessarily stressful competition among students. This is also contributing to the rise in perfectionism.

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” Curran said in an interview with the American Psychological Association. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. ...

"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.”

Overcoming perfectionism

Brené Brown is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and also the author of "The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are." (Highly recommend, by the way.)

This is one of her more famous quotes on perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

If you have perfectionistic tendencies, you likely feel shame when you cannot achieve perfection. To overcome this, train yourself to think through your perfectionistic urges when you feel them. Remind yourself that perfection is impossible. Everyone is imperfect, everyone makes mistakes, but everyone is also worthy of love. That's what Brown studies and teaches in her speaking and writing.

If you want to work toward shedding that shield and accepting yourself as you are, here's an introduction to the importance of self-compassion and vulnerability, traits Brown believes can counteract perfectionism:


Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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