This article was based on the TEDMED 2018 talk, “Our Dangerous Obsession with Perfectionism Is Getting Worse,” by Thomas Curran:
Are Perfectionists More Successful?
We tend to hold perfectionism up as an insignia of worth. The emblem of the successful. Yet, in his study of perfectionism, Thomas Curran has seen limited evidence that perfectionists are more successful. Quite the contrary -- they feel discontented and dissatisfied amid a lingering sense that they're never quite perfect enough.
The Downside of Perfection
We know from clinician case reports that perfectionism conceals a host of psychological difficulties, including things like depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, and even suicide ideation. What's more worrying is that over the last 25 years, we have seen perfectionism rise at an alarming rate. At the same time, we have seen more mental illness among young people than ever before. Rates of suicide in the US increased by 25 percent across the last two decades, and we're seeing similar trends emerge across Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Current research suggests that perfectionism is increasing as society is changing. A changed society reflects a changed sense of personal identity and, with it, differences in the way in which young people interact with each other and the world around them. There are some unique characteristics of our preeminent, market-based society that include things like unrestricted choice and personal freedom, which are characteristics that are contributing to almost epidemic levels of this problem.
A New Visual Culture
Young people today are more preoccupied with the attainment of the perfect life and lifestyle in terms of their image, status, and wealth. Data from Pew show that young people born in the US in the late 1980s are 20 percent more likely to report being materially rich as among their most important life goals. Young people also borrow more heavily than did older generations, and they spend a much greater proportion of their income on image goods and status possessions. These possessions, their lives, and their lifestyles are now displayed in vivid detail on the ubiquitous social media platforms of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. In this new visual culture, the appearance of perfection is far more important than the reality.
Testing Metrics Drive Perfectionism
Education is the first arena where metrics are being used as a tool to improve standards and performance. American students take close to 100 mandatory standardised tests by the time they graduate high school. No wonder young people report a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the centre of modern life. They've been conditioned to define themselves in the strict and narrow terms of grades and percentiles.
The Climb to Achievement
This is a society that preys on young people’s insecurities about how they are performing and how they appear to other people. This is a society that amplifies their imperfections. Every flaw, every unforeseen setback increases a need to perform more perfectly next time or be labeled a failure. Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism is never about perfecting things or perfecting tasks. At its root, perfectionism is about perfecting the self. Or, more precisely, perfecting an imperfect self.
You can think about it like a mountain of achievement that perfectionism leads us to imagine ourselves scaling. We think to ourselves, "Once I've reached that summit, then people will see I'm not flawed, and I'll be worth something." However, soon after reaching that summit, we will be called down again to the fresh lowlands of insecurity and shame, just to try and scale that peak again. This is the cycle of self-defeat. In the pursuit of unattainable perfection, a perfectionist just cannot step off.
Accepting Failures and Flaws
Is there hope? Of course, there's hope. Perfectionists can and should hold on to certain things -- they are typically bright, ambitious, conscientious, and hardworking. While the treatment is complex, a little bit of self-compassion, going easy on ourselves when things don't go well, can turn those qualities into greater personal peace and success.
Perfectionism develops in our formative years, and so young people are more vulnerable. Parents can help their children by supporting them unconditionally when they've tried but failed. Parents can resist their understandable urge in today's highly competitive society to helicopter-parent, as a lot of anxiety is communicated when parents take on their kids' successes and failures as their own.
Ultimately, the research raises important questions about how we are structuring society and whether our society's heavy emphasis on competition, evaluation, and testing is benefiting young people. It's become commonplace for public figures to say that young people just need a little bit more resilience in the face of these new and unprecedented pressures. At the same time, we have a shared responsibility to create a society and a culture in which young people need less perfection in the first place. Creating that kind of world is an enormous challenge, and for a generation of young people that live their lives in a spotlight of metrics and social media, perfectionism is inevitable, so long as they lack any purpose in life greater than how they are appearing or how they are performing to other people.
What can they do about it? Every time they are knocked down from that mountaintop, they see no other option but to try scaling that peak again. The ancient Greeks knew that this endless struggle up and down the same mountain was not the road to happiness. Their image of hell was a man called Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to keep rolling the same boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down and have to start again. So long as we teach young people that there is nothing more real or meaningful in their lives than this hopeless quest for perfection, then we are going to condemn future generations to that same futility and despair.
So, we're left with a question. When are we going to appreciate that there is something fundamentally inhuman about limitless perfection? No one is flawless. If we want to help our young people escape the trap of perfectionism, then we will teach them that in a chaotic world, life will often defeat us, but failure is not weakness. If we want to help our young people outgrow this self-defeating snare of impossible perfection, then we will raise them in a society that has outgrown that very same delusion.
Most of all, if we want our young people to enjoy mental, emotional, and psychological health, then we will invite them to celebrate the joys and the beauties of imperfection as a normal and natural part of everyday living and loving.