There’s a story that my family loves to recount whenever the topic of perfectionism comes up around the dinner table. When I was in fourth grade, my family had one computer that lived in an alcove outside of my parents’ bedroom.
Once, around one or two in the morning (well past my nine-year-old bedtime), my mother woke to the tapping of the keyboard and found me perched at the screen in my pajamas, having snuck down from my bedroom to do more homework after she put me to bed. I wouldn’t go back to sleep, explaining that I still had to add one more thing to a project due the next day. I was frantically researching the various breeds of sheep in Wales.
Admitted perfectionist Julia Guerra of Elite Daily had a “total mental and physical breakdown” over a lost memory stick in seventh grade. If you ask your millennial friends, it’s likely many of them can recount a multitude of similar struggles with perfectionism, perhaps irrational in hindsight but all too real and painful in the moment.
As outlined by Refinery29, a new study, released by the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, found that “millennials are more likely than previous generations to put pressure on ourselves — and others — to be perfect, possibly to the detriment of our mental health.” Perfectionism is on the rise.
From 1989 to 2016, over 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students completed a Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, measuring trends in perfectionism. The study broadly defines perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations,” emphasizing that this “achievement and relational personality trait” is multidimensional. As Refinery29 explains, “The MPS looked at three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, or an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and other-oriented, or putting unrealistic standards on others.”
Over the duration of the study, researchers found an increase of 10 percent in self-oriented perfectionism, 33 percent in socially prescribed perfectionism, and 16 percent in other-oriented perfectionism. In the words of the study’s authors, millennials “perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves,” and are suffering emotionally as a consequence. The researchers link this increase in perfectionism to multiple mental health issues.
But why are young people today pushing themselves so hard to be perfect? Refinery29 spoke with the lead author of the study, Thomas Curran, PhD, who explained that “the drive to compete is instilled in us before we even enter preschool, in response to an innate need to belong.” Today, perfectionism and this drive to compete are rewarded and encouraged at every turn. Among other things, the study cites “neoliberal governance” and a concerning “rise of parental expectations for their children’s achievements” as contributing to this issue. Refinery29 notes that young people have more “metrics to measure success” than previous generations, including social media and school testing.
Luckily, though these pressures are an ingrained part of our today’s culture, there’s hope for those struggling with perfectionism. As Dr. Curran suggests, "diligence, flexibility, and perseverance are far better qualities ... because they are rooted in excellence and involve a desire to perfect things, rather than oneself.” Try to focus on your own success and stop measuring yourself against others and avoid situations that you know will feed your perfectionist tendencies.
Dr. Curran and Refinery29 also suggest that work-life balance and breaks from social media can help combat perfectionism. So, if you’re looking for somewhere to begin, you could try practicing mindfulness to break your addiction to your smartphone.
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