Nothing Less Than Perfect

Perfectionism in the 21st Century

Rising levels of perfectionism are hurting young people (courtesy of

Rising levels of perfectionism are hurting young people (courtesy of

Samantha Street, Staff Writer

Uptight, detail-oriented, neurotic, obsessive, workaholic: perfectionism. A term which is “broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations” (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990). Perfectionism has negative real-world impacts and its prevalence speaks volumes about the damage our culture is doing to young people.

Perfectionism is believed to be multi-dimensional. In 1991, Hewitt and Flett created a widely used scale classifying perfectionism as self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism is the expectations that one places on themselves, while other-oriented perfectionism is the expectations that an individual places on those around them. The socially prescribed form is the expectations placed on an individual by those around them. It has also been broken into adaptive and maladaptive forms. The adaptive form is characterized by “deriving satisfaction from achievements made from intense effort but tolerating the imperfections,” while the other type has “high personal performance standards and tendencies to be extremely self-critical in self-evaluations” (Improving Lives Counseling). There is still debate as to whether there is such a thing as adaptive perfectionism. Hewitt argues that he “[doesn’t] think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive” (APA). While some may see perfectionism as helpful in some sectors, it is generally regarded as a handicap. The downsides of perfectionism must be addressed; it has been linked to anxiety and depression and a recent study found that it on the rise among Generations Y and Z.

Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016, a study conducted by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill published in December, found a significant increase in perfectionist tendencies in younger people. They found that all three dimensions have been on the rise over the past 27 years. They found a 10% increase in self-oriented perfectionism, a 32% increase in the socially prescribed form, and 16% increase in other-oriented perfectionism between 1989 and 2017. Curren and Hill hypothesize that this increase may be due to changing parenting practices, neoliberalism, and increasingly competitive environments. Parents are now more responsible for their child’s failures seeing them as their own. They also place more emphasis on the importance of an education and are pushing their children to achieve too much. One study found that high parental expectations show a strong correlation with maladaptive perfectionism in their children (Developmental Trajectories of Maladaptive Perfectionism in Middle Childhood). Neoliberalism is a form of liberalism that focuses on the free-market economy. This may lead to the more competitive environments that are a breeding ground for perfectionism. These situations force individuals in maladaptive tendencies that harm their mental health.

Perfectionists are valuable in areas where mistakes are costly, but may take too long to complete tasks or unable to work under pressure. They are seen as “vulnerable to distress [and are] often haunted by a chronic sense of failure” (Psychology Today). Perfectionists strive to be the best they can be, but they beat themselves up when they fall short. This makes it very difficult to learn from their mistakes and may give up due to a fear of failure or criticism. Perfectionists may also be overly critical of others and may be difficult to work with. While there may be benefits to their tendencies, the downsides arguably outweigh the benefits. Adaptive perfectionism should be encouraged, but the maladaptive form must be dealt with and discouraged.

With perfectionism on the rise, it may be time to examine our culture. The high expectations we are putting on high school and college students are hurting them. An emphasis on comparing themselves to others in schools, sports, and social media has led them to a need to appear perfect constantly. We must encourage young people to understand that failure is not something to fear, but something to learn from. Our desire for perfection must be balanced with our need to learn.