Perfectionism Is Wreaking Havoc on Millennial Mental Health

The drive to be better than we were before, to outperform our peers and achieve our goals is a central idea in Western culture, from the business world right through to the education system. But a growing consensus suggests that this obsession might be creating a generation plagued by perfectionism.

A study published this month  in the journal “Psychological Bulletin” certainly attests to that fact. Researchers Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill of York St. John University, analyzed data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale.

This scale is a tool that psychologists and wider health analysts use to asses generational trends in perfectionism, among other mental health patterns. The set of questions assesses perfectionism through three broad areas:

  • Self-Oriented Perfectionism: “I must be the best”
  • Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: “I have to be the best because that is what is expected of me”
  • Other-Oriented Perfectionism: “They have to be the best/live up to high standards”

The researchers found that more recent generations are reporting far higher scores across each perfectionism category than previous generations. Between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented perfectionism score — that is, the inner drive to demand perfectionism from ourselves — increased by 10 percent, while socially prescribed perfectionism went up a whopping 33 percent. Other-oriented perfectionism also rose significantly at 16 percent.

One key driver for this shift is a cultural obsession with social mobility and the notion of the “hustle” to the top.

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” Curran explained. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”

But this perfectionism trend isn’t only impacting college students. In a snowball effect, millennials will likely expect higher standards from those coming after them, in turn forcing those generations to impose higher, unrealistic expectations on their own children.

This can create a heavy psychological burden, impacting collective mental health — and evidence suggests that it’s already occurring.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University found that mental health treatment for college students has risen by about 30 percent in recent years. As mental health diagnosis becomes more sensitive with improved technology, a slight rise might be expected, but that’s a massive jump. In addition, one in 10 respondents from the Center’s counseling service data says they have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons.

And there’s another interesting thread to this trend. Health professionals have found that psychological stress can be mitigated by significant enough rewards. For example, surgeons face high levels of stress in their jobs, but the financial and personal rewards of their work appear to shield them from psychological harm.

For millennials and more recent generations, however, that buffer will likely diminish because their college degrees are not getting them the work they were promised, nor the financial rewards that were supposed to accompany that hard work. Instead, they are receiving mountains of debt and financial hardship.

Perfectionism may have once paid off, but not anymore.

A personal insight into perfectionism

I have previously written about my struggle with anxiety and depression disorders. One of the key issues that I have dealt with has been overcoming my perfectionism. At first, this might sound like a trivial issue, but perfectionism was debilitating for me.

It would start each morning, when if I did not rise, complete the full list of exercises I had prescribed myself, read for a full fifteen minutes, eat a nutritious breakfast and so on, I would feel like the day was ruined. Any interruption in my schedule, anything that took me away from the “Perfect Day,” was so stressful that I could sometimes find myself completely paralyzed by anxiety.

This has been even more dangerous in other areas of my life. Eating the “perfect” diet to have the “perfect” body has been a persistent preoccupation for me. It has led to me running a self-imposed 10K race while recovering from a chest infection –not something I would advise — to heavily restricting my diet to the point where I might only eat solid foods for one meal per day, if I ate at all.

It would also lead me to abandon activities I really enjoyed doing, like playing the flute, because I thought that unless I could be perfect at it, there was no point in doing it.

Additionally, I found that perfectionism crept into my social life. I would return home from social gatherings and ruminate on how I had behaved. Nearly every time I would find that I hadn’t been the perfectly charming, self-effacing individual I felt I should be. That I’d been too loud, too quiet, too…something – and, most decidedly, not perfect.

I’m glad to say that with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication I am now fighting this sense of perfectionism, but it is probably something I will have to struggle against for the rest of my life. And I remain concerned that we are teaching our young people from an early age that unless they are constantly striving to be better, they are failing. This tells them they are inherently never good enough — and that’s incredibly damaging.

It begs the question, though, how do we fix this disturbing trend?

In this case, the researchers offer clear guidance: We need to stop pitting our young people against each other and move away from the “competition for growth” mentality. Otherwise, we risk a serious decline in mental health.

Photo Credit: Ben Waardenburg/Unsplash

47 comments

Leanne K
Leanne K3 days ago

Yes and no. More narcissism yes but perfectionism? Um not in my book. You are not a perfectionist no matter how many hours you perfect your make up nor how spotless your car is or how beautifully clothed you are - if all around you is filth. Lots of people at car washes, no one picking up the litter. Time to get our oriorities right

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Lesa D
Lesa D5 days ago

thank you Kevin...

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Celine Russo
Celine Russo5 days ago

There's a reason why I say that I feel too much is expected from me.

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Kalliope M
Kalliope M7 days ago

It lies in the human nature to strive for the better and try to achieve the best for oneself - whereby the feeling of perfection is very individual. A real perfectionist is almost never satisfied and can really terrorize himself and his personal habitat - because nothing is good enough and it is very difficult to satisfy that. Also every person has something like an individual day's quality that is very different - which makes it difficult to always function perfectly. I personally try to take this into account and not to submit to this very strenuous perfectionism. Perfectionism can also be very boring and I also think it is very human to not always be perfect - and in my opinion this also makes humans sympathic!

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Mary B
Mary B8 days ago

"Good Enough" can always be tweaked and amended as more is learned. Perfection is an illusion that steals your power, and often paralyzes you. It makes you any everybody around you crazy.

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Ann B
Ann B8 days ago

in my day only the rich were BETTER or so they thot.....

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara8 days ago

Try to help others, don't self-obsess.

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara8 days ago

Pity so many people don't care if they are fatter than any previous generation.

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Margaret G
Margaret G9 days ago

I wonder if this perfectionism is why the United States now has President Trump. If the Jill Stein voters, who wanted perfection, had settled for "good enough" Clinton, the United States would have President Clinton.

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Margaret G
Margaret G9 days ago

Thank you, Steve, for this honest article about perfectionism. I blame rapacious capitalism for this malady. As the number of jobs that pay enough to live on dwindles, the struggle to obtain such an increasingly elusive job, becomes more and more difficult.

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