An Unhealthy Amount of Perfectionism is on the Rise
Perfectionism among young people has been on the rise since at least the 1980s, according to research published in the Psychological Bulletin, an American Psychological Association journal. This drive to be perfect could be negatively impacting their mental health.
Thomas Curran, Ph.D., of the University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, Ph.D., of York St. John University, analyzed 164 samples from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale between 1989 and 2016.
They classified data into 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 placing unrealistic standards on others. They found that more recent college students reported significantly higher scores for each type of perfectionism than those of earlier generations. During the years analyzed, self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed increased by 33 percent and other-oriented increased by 16 percent.
Curran attributes this rise in perfectionism to a number of factors, including the pressure to get a good education and have the highest grade point average, the drive to earn money, and the lofty goal of a highly successful career. Furthermore, these factors represent a rise in meritocracy, where universities encourage competition among students to excel socially and economically.
“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” says Curran. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”
So, how unrealistic are these expectations? More than 80 percent of high school seniors in 2008 expected to earn a college degree, compared to just 50 percent in 1976. Yet, the number of those earning a degree has failed to keep up with these expectations. The gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to earn a college degree and those with one doubled between 1976 and 2000 and is continuing to grow.
Social media use may also play a role in a young person’s desire to be perfect. Raw data suggest that it puts pressure on young adults to perfect and compare themselves to others. Curran speculates that this comparison often leaves them feeling dissatisfied with their bodies and increases their social isolation.
“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” says Curran. “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.”
Curran and Hill think that the increase in perfectionism may be affecting the psychological health of students. Higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts have been reported recently than a decade ago.
If you have clients who are caught up in the need to be perfect, invite them to consider where this drive for perfection is stemming from. You can also help them explore how perfectionism makes them feel and how they might excel and succeed in a healthier manner.