Generation Insecure: 27 Years of Research Behind the Battle for Perfection
There’s never been greater pressure to do it all.
On December 28 of 2017, researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill published findings from a 27-year study of perfectionism among American, Canadian and UK college students. They confirmed that which millions already knew: there’s never been greater pressure to become everything.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Millennials have already set new records for reported levels of stress, anxiety and mental health issues. The generation following them, however, seems to be doing even worse.
We’re facing more competition and scarcity than ever before, especially in one particular area — our self-worth.
Part I: What The Hell Is Going On?
Reviewing The Data
The authors summarize their research as following:
Our findings suggest that self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have increased over the last 27 years. [Young] people are now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.
The Three Forms Of Perfectionism
Curran & Hill outline three primary forms of perfectionism:
- Self-Oriented, i.e. “I am demanding of myself.” Here individuals, “attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations.”
- Socially Prescribed, i.e. “Others are demanding of me.” This form of perfectionism arises when people believe their, “social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval.”
- Other-Oriented, i.e. “I am demanding of others.” This form of perfectionism occurs when, “expectations are directed toward others, individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically.” The authors also note other-oriented perfectionism is related to, “a narcissistic desire for others’ admiration.”
While there were multiple findings in the research, I found the following three points to be especially interesting.
1. Perfectionism Is Aggravating Mental Health Problems
Young people are experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than they did a decade ago (e.g., Bloch, 2016; Bor, Dean, Najman, & Hayatbakhsh, 2014; Patel, Flisher, Hetrick, & McGorry, 2007). They also report more loneliness … eating disorders and body dysmorphia at higher rates than generations previous (e.g., Paik & Sanchagrin, 2013; Smink et al., 2012; Thompson & Durrani, 2007).
2. American Students Are Hyper Self-Critical
American students don’t need anyone whipping their backs. They’re doing the job quite effectively on their own.
American students primarily demonstrated self-oriented perfectionism while Canadian and U.K. students reported higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. As the authors state, it’s likely that Americans feel the same external pressure as their Canadian and U.K. counterparts. However, they have added their own internal pressure to such a degree that outside pressures have become eclipsed.
Alongside the effect of time, American college students appeared to report higher self-oriented perfectionism than Canadian and British college students. Regarding why this might be the case, some researchers have suggested that the United States has become hyper-individualistic in recent decades (Klein, 2012)… Communal values [have] waned in favor of an individualized notion of liberty, in which the uninhibited pursuit of self-gain is prized more than anything else (Esposito, 2011).
3. Social Pressures Are Becoming Crippling
Students are feeling more external pressures (from schools, future employers, friends, family, etc.) and are struggling to cope. Perfectionism is pursued as a means of becoming safe, accepted and even loved.
This finding suggests that young people are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval.
Part II: Why Has Perfectionism Skyrocketed?
Why Do Students Feel the Need to Become Perfect?
Curran & Hill propose three possible causes for this dramatic rise in the need for perfectionism: the rise of neo-liberalism, meritocracy and increasingly anxious parenting.
A) Neo-Liberalism: A Culture of Competition
The authors argue that the sudden rise of neo-liberalism has caused overwhelming pressure to succeed. From the marketplace to friendships, everything is open to competition.
[Neoliberalism] has succeeded in shifting cultural values so to now emphasize competitiveness, individualism, and irrational ideals of the perfectible self (Verhaeghe, 2014) … [There is] a pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation.
Not only more dissatisfied with what they have, young people are also seemingly more dissatisfied with who they are (Eckersley, 2006) … The popularity of [social media] is, in part, explained by how they allow users to curate a perfect public image (Mendelson & Papacharissi, 2011).
B) The Rise Of Meritocracy
The authors argue that neo-liberalism is founded on a belief that success is equally available to all. If this is true — and there remain those who are unsuccessful — it must be because they are internally flawed.
Being poor isn’t just a statement of finances; it’s a statement of character. Those who are poor must be lacking in character traits that the wealthy and successful have in order to succeed. After all, if I have good character and values, shouldn’t I be successful?
The perfect life and lifestyle — encapsulated by achievement, wealth, and social status — are available to anyone provided you try hard enough (Frank, 2016) … For those who do not reach such educational and professional heights, the doctrine of meritocracy dictates they are less deserving and their poor achievement reflects their inadequate personal abilities (e.g., skills, intelligence, and efforts; Hayes, 2012).
Whereas education has historically sought to provide young people with a broader repertoire of skills and knowledge, neo-liberal meritocracy stresses that skills and knowledge are worthless unless they confer economic value (Verhaeghe, 2014).
Young people are taught that the principles of meritocracy are good, fair, and just. In response, they are compelled to demonstrate their merit, set increasingly higher and unrealistic goals, and come to define themselves in the strict and narrow terms of personal achievement.
C) Anxious & Controlling Parenting
Parenting practices have adapted for a world that is increasingly competitive and performance-based. Parents are more likely to focus on helping their children become competitive candidates for the future instead of traditionally bonding as a family.
Co-dependent child-parent relationships also seem to be on the rise, as parents have become increasingly blamed for the imperfections of their child. If little Johnny isn’t succeeding, what does that say about his mother?
For parents, this new culture confers an additional burden. On top of their own duty to succeed, [parents] are also responsible for the successes and failures of their children (Verhaeghe, 2014).
This internalized concern for one’s child’s success has been labeled child-contingent self-esteem (Soenens, Wuyts, Vansteenkiste, Mageau, & Brenning, 2015) and is evident in the rise of parental expectations for their children’s achievements which, across the industrialized world, are at extremes that psychologists have noted are cause for concern (Sevilla & Borra, 2015).
[Parents are] spending far more time with their children on academic activities [and less time] doing other activities such as leisure or hobbies.
Parenting practices associated with monitoring and surveillance, such as telling parents where they are and what they will be doing, have increased approximately twofold (Collishaw etal., 2012). Meanwhile … autonomy supportive parent behaviors, such as showing an interest in children’s ideas, have waned considerably (Collishaw et al., 2012).
[There is a] a combination of high expectations, high levels of criticism and encouraging children to adopt extremely high standards and to strive for perfection, so to avoid criticism and gain the approval of their parents.
Part III: So What Do We Do Now?
No Easy Solution
I run CalmCampus.org, a coaching organization that helps college students understand and break out of their cycles of fear.
Many of our clients represent those in this article: fear-driven high-achievers who feel like they are in a desperate battle to become their best, ultimate and perfect selves.
What’s unfortunate is that many of our clients come with amazing personal goals and visions but are too trapped by fear to act. Their self-esteem is perpetually on the line.
It’s hard enough to do something new. It’s even more difficult to do something new while trying to prove your worth.
We are living in a time with numerous problems and challenges. Courageous people with big ideas are needed now more than. If we want to improve our world we must develop the internal strength to do so.
The Primary Problem
We have somehow created a culture where our internal sense of self-worth is defined by our external circumstances.
From a risk-management perspective, this is horrendous. To have something as valuable as our worth as a human outside of our direct control leaves it perpetually vulnerable. Taking protective action — such as pursuing perfection in order to stay safe — becomes an extremely logical tactic.
Unfortunately, this strategy will not work.
Self-Worth Can’t Be Achieved
Achieving self-worth is just as possible as “achieving” happiness. They don’t come from the outside. They are developed from within.
Numerous examples of this truth exist, many of which I have discussed in previous articles. Yet, few of us need to look outside of our own experience for proof. How many times have we thought, “If I could only achieve X, I’ll feel so much better,” only to achieve X and realize we feel exactly the same. In frustration we decide that we simply were pursuing the wrong X. It’s this other one that matters, this other achievement that will set us free. We change our X’s one after the other, endlessly running without ever reaching our goal. We’re stuck on a hamster wheel, racing desperately against the inevitable burn out.
It’s time to find a new way forward.
Perfectionism: The Ultimate Snipe Hunt
What does it mean to be perfect?
Many find this to be a surprisingly difficult question. Most attempt to answer it in the negative: a perfect person doesn’t get emotional, doesn’t get less than straight A’s, doesn’t make any social faux pas, etc. Yet this approach is as efficient as defining ice cream by saying it’s “not a car.” It doesn’t tell us what it is; only what it isn’t.
If we can’t define perfection, can we find examples of perfect people?
In all my years of coaching, I have yet to hear a single name in response to this question. Most end up making a fictional person who carries the traits of others: the charm of George Clooney, mind of Elon Musk, drive of Teddy Roosevelt, etc. None have been able to cite a single person.
If we can’t find perfect people, can we at least find perfect things? For example, does a perfect object exist in the universe?
For most, this question ends up being a homework assignment. Each comes back the next week with a startling realization — no. Perfect squares, perfect spheres, perfect cubes … none are known to exist. Perfection seems to be entirely unnatural.
If we: 1) struggle to define what perfection is, 2) can’t name perfect people and 3) can’t even find perfect objects, this suggests a logical conclusion — perfection, as we understand it, simply does not exist.
If perfection doesn’t exist externally does it make any sense to expect it internally?
Logic: Bringing A Knife To A Gun Fight
In a perfect world, this is where the story would end. Poor logic would be replaced and we’d go happily on our way. But this isn’t the case. This is an emotional issue, not a logical one.
Understanding our Emotion Behind Perfection
We don’t defeat our fears by fighting them; we defeat them by questioning them.
Few know this better than Daryl Davis, a black musician who inspired over 200 Ku Klux Klan members to turn in their robes and change their ways.
Below he talked about his process during a 2017 Reddit AMA:
I NEVER set out to convert anyone. I simply set out to ask a question I had formed in my mind as a kid: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Growing up, we all are told, “A tiger doesn’t change its stripes, a leopard doesn’t change its spots,” etc. I believed that and I didn’t think anyone was going to change, so that wasn’t my initial goal. I just wanted the answer to my question. But over time, though repeated interactions with various KKK members around the country, some of them began questioning their own beliefs as a result of their interactions and conversations with me. Then they began quitting, and I was astounded.
Three Questions For Perfectionists
1. What happens if you’re not perfect? (And then what, and then what…)
This line of interrogation allows us to identify our actual fears. Here’s a possible example: If I’m not perfect, I’ll get fired from my job. If I’m fired from my job, I’ll be broke, embarrassed and have nothing. If I have nothing, I will become nothing. I can’t let this happen.
While this person’s perfection shows itself as a desire to keep their job, what they’re really concerned about is their value and worth.
2. How is perfectionism trying to protect you?
This approach allows us to view fear as a misguided ally instead of an enemy. There’s no benefit from waging a civil war within; when we fight ourselves we’re always guaranteed to lose.
Many have developed a need for perfection as a coping mechanism. For example, if I feel like I must achieve massive amounts of success in order to matter, perfectionism may give me the energy I need to keep pushing. Feeling I’m worthless and must become perfect can provide amazing drive in the short-term, even if it simultaneously destroys my long-term mental health.
3. What would be a more accurate way to view yourself and the world?
Objective truth is the greatest weapon against the subjective truth of fear.
Fear often causes us to selectively pick certain circumstances and use them as the general rule for everything. Many of us have a cutthroat view of the world even though we witness kindness and positive human behavior every day.
Each of our personal heroes was imperfect and human. If they could find success then we can as well.
Facts defeat fear. While we may be able to think of times when we were rejected for not being perfect, every person can also think of times when they were shown acceptance in spite of being human.
If I Hit ’Em High, You Hit ’Em Low
The most powerful blow against perfectionism is the thing it least expects: compassion.
Nothing confuses our fear more than compassion. In a ultra-competitive belief system where everything is determined by success and results, loving something simply for the sake of loving it doesn’t make sense. Instead, everything — including love, acceptance and affection — must be fought over and achieved.
Compassion is rooted in the decision to show love and acceptance in spite of imperfection. Nearly every person can think of someone who they love and care for but is woefully imperfect. Yet we love them and feel connected to them. If we can show such love to others we can do the same for ourselves.
Each of us have permission to accept and embrace our humanity.
Finding The Strength To Persevere
It’s important to note that I’m a professional coach, not a counselor. This article and the content in it are not meant to replace guidance given to those who are dealing with clinical levels of perfectionism and anxiety.
Yet as someone who not only works with those who are struggling but also had his own battles with self-worth, I understand the situation young adults currently face all too well.
The world is getting more specialized and competitive. Unless new high-paying jobs requiring minimal education are created at a faster rate than the loss of such jobs to automation, it’s unlikely this scenario is going to change any time soon.
Having a strong internal foundation and a clear mind will be critical for succeeding in an economically scarce environment.
Internal strength allows us to remain quick and adaptable during difficult times. If we strengthen ourselves from within and claim our self-worth, we’ll be far more likely to create the new solutions we need.
Self-worth isn’t an achievement; it’s a choice. If we want to feel like we matter, we have to first decide that we matter to ourselves.
James J. Stamatelos is a professional coach who is exceptionally tired of living in a culture where we’re constantly told why we aren’t enough, why we should run from discomfort and why we need external things (products, politicians, etc.) to save us. We can save ourselves. We’re stronger than we think.