For many of us, perfectionism is often confused with the genuine drive and desire to obtain excellence. What perfectionism actually is, however, is the quest for the unobtainable.
In this post on perfectionism, Dr. Michael Ashworth explains:
Individuals caught up in perfectionistic thinking or behavior commonly experience significant personal distress as well as chronic health and emotional problems. Such individuals can also provoke extremely negative reactions from others due to their unrealistically high standards and quest to avoid failure and rejection…
Perfectionism is based on a belief that unless I am perfect, I am not okay. Perfectionists believe that they cannot be happy or enjoy life because they are not perfect. One does not have to be a compulsive organizer to be a perfectionist. Frequently holding oneself or others to unrealistic standards can, by itself, result in stress.
It is clear from this description of perfectionism that it is an unhealthy way to live. Some health problems linked to perfectionism include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, high blood pressure and even thoughts of suicide.
A 2017 study published in the journal Psychology Bulletin found that, compared to previous generations, college students (between 18-25 years of age) today are more demanding of themselves and put higher levels of pressure on themselves to be perfect.
In the study perfectionism was divided into three categories:
- Self-oriented – putting high expectations on oneself
- Other-oriented – having rigorous standards for others and then evaluating them critically
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism – high expectations perceived to come from others, and includes a perception of harsh judgement. Person feels he or she must be perfect to gain approval.
Results of the study indicated while there was a rise in those dealing with self-oriented (10%) as well as other-oriented perfectionism (16%), the most dramatic increase (33%) was noted in socially-prescribed perfectionism. Participants felt they needed to be perfect to win approval from others whether it be parents, friends, or social media connections. Many psychologists believe socially-prescribed perfectionism is the most debilitating type of perfectionism, as young people are haunted by the feeling they have let others down.
The researchers examined how cultural changes have shaped the personalities of the study participants, all who were from the United States, Canada, and Britain, and the rise in social media appears to play a very large part in this increase in perfectionism. Other possible influences might be societies that value individuals over the whole, more anxious and controlling parenting styles, and meritocracy. Thomas Curran, one of the study authors, said:
Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform, and achieve in modern life. Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.
So how can we help our young people grow to be the best they can be while avoiding the trappings of perfectionism? In this interesting article in The Washington Post (January 25, 2018), the author discusses how we can help our children and teens deal with the demands of today’s society. Having a frank talk about social media and limiting our children’s access are good steps. Also, sometimes just validating how our children are feeling (“I’m sure you’re under a lot of pressure right now, and I’m here to talk if you need me”) goes a long way. Additionally, we need to choose our words wisely. Saying things such as “Don’t put so much pressure on yourself,” while well-meaning, might actually make things worse, as we are putting all the responsibility of being a perfectionist on our child. They might see this as one more way they have failed to measure up!
Perhaps one of the most important things we can do, as parents, is to tell our children, and even more importantly, show our children, that we will always love and accept them for who they truly are, not for what they accomplish.