'Perfectionism' Is A Real Problem & We Bet It's Affecting You Too

Photo: ISABEL CASTILLO GUIJARRO
We probably don't need to remind you that being a young adult, or millennial, today is tricky work – and not just because certain sections of the media enjoy branding us as entitled "snowflakes".
The pressure to do well at school or university is greater than ever; the economy seems intent on ensuring that only the most privileged can make their way; and technology and "selfie culture" is messing with our body image and mental health. All the while, we've been told how easy it is these days to reach for the stars and be whatever we want to be.
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So is it any wonder that young adults feel the need to be the best in all areas of their lives?
New research suggests millennials are far more likely to display perfectionist tendencies than previous generations of young people.
The study, conducted by the University of Bath and York St John University and published in Psychological Bulletin, is the first to compare generational differences in perfectionism and the findings lay bare the pressure millennials are putting on themselves – and others.
Compared with young people in the late 1980s, millennials are 33% more likely to believe their environment demands perfection ("socially prescribed" perfectionism); 16% more likely to expect perfection from others ("other-oriented" perfectionism); and 10% more likely to harbour an irrational desire to be perfect themselves.
Academics Thomas Curran, PhD, from the University of Bath and Andrew Hill, PhD, of York St John University, analysed data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students who completed a perfectionism test between the late 1980s and 2016. They defined perfectionism as "an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others," Science Daily reported.
But Curran and Hill didn't explain away the trend as a result of social media, as many similar studies have done recently. Instead, they said three decades of neoliberalism, which has forced young people to compete against each other, could be to blame.
"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," said Curran.
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He also pointed out that social media, which forces us to perfect ourselves and encourages comparison against others and dissatisfaction with our own bodies, along with social isolation, could also play a role but further research is needed to support this, reported Science Daily.
He also called on schools, universities and other organisations that work with young people, along with policymakers who shape the wider socioeconomic environment, to "resist the promotion of competitiveness at the expense of young people's psychological health," The Telegraph reported.
Indeed, the researchers said millennials' well-documented struggles with mental health could, in part, be caused by this drive towards perfection, although the research wasn't a causal analysis. "It may be that higher levels of perfectionism is a key contributing factor to such difficulties," Hill said.
"Young people are trying to find ways to cope with a sense of increasing demands being placed on them and they are responding by becoming more perfectionistic towards themselves and others."
illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Speaking to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, writer Will Storr, author of Selfie, which explores self-obsession, said he also found neoliberalism to be the root cause of perfectionist tendencies while he was researching his book. One of the big contributing environmental factors, he said, is the economy: "If you look at who we were in 1965 versus 1985, we went from these collectively minded, anti-materialistic hippy types to 'greed is good' yuppies."
In between those two dates, he pointed out, neoliberalism began, which reduced the welfare state and emphasised competition and the importance of "success". Social media isn't the sole culprit, therefore, but it has accelerated the trend.
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At last, an explanation for our deteriorating mental health that doesn't lay the blame solely on our own social media use. Wider social forces are, in fact, pretty influential. Good to know.
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