Perfection has officially become unappealing. Kids these days are more obsessed with perfection than many previous generations were, and this obsession is associated with increased depression and anxiety, according to a new study published in Psychological Bulletin.
The authors of the study reviewed prior research on perfectionism, which they broadly define “as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” They also conducted their own study among 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students between 1989 and 2016. They found that perfectionism increased over time. And it’s worst in the United States.
There are multiple dimensions to this cultural phenomenon, as the study refers to it, including self-oriented perfectionism, which is the pressure one puts on oneself to be perfect; socially prescribed perfectionism, the pressure one feels from society to be perfect, and other-oriented perfectionism, the pressure one puts on others to be perfect.
The research presents three reasons for this shift: the rise of neoliberalism, increasingly anxious and controlling parents, and the increasing power of meritocracy.
“[N]eoliberalism and its doctrine of meritocracy have combined to shape a culture in which everybody is expected to perfect themselves and their lifestyles, by striving to meet unrealistic achievement standards,” the study states. “For parents, this new culture confers an additional burden. On top of their own duty to succeed, they are also responsible for the successes and failures of their children.”
Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in family and relationship issues, singles out another important factor: social media. “These people grew up being constantly evaluated on social media,” she points out.
So what’s so bad about striving to be perfect? It can lead to increased depression and anxiety. “Research among college students and young people, for example, has found self-oriented perfectionism to be positively associated with clinical depression, anorexia nervosa, and early death,” the study authors point out. “It is also associated with greater physiological reactivity (e.g., elevated blood pressure) and ill-being (e.g., negative affect) in response to life stress and failure.” They even identified a link with suicidal ideation.
It’s not just the self-inflicted perfectionism that causes problems. “Socially prescribed perfectionism predicted increases in depressive symptoms and suicide ideation over time, but to a much greater degree,” says the study. Another analysis found socially prescribed perfectionism was positively related to a range of psychological disorders and symptoms of disorders, including social phobia, body dissatisfaction, bulimia nervosa, and suicide ideation, and had the greatest relationship between other dimensions of perfectionism and depression and anxiety.
“When you are constantly under a literal and figurative microscope — the microscope being social media — of course you are going to become more self-conscious,” says Dr. Greenberg. “When self-consciousness and perfectionism increase, anxiety and depression increase as well. They go hand in hand,” she says, supporting the study.
There has recently been a push for celebrities and influencers to appear less perfect and more relatable in their posts. But it will be a while before that catches on.
“The things that kids post on Instagram and Snapchat are celebratory moments,” Dr. Greenberg says. “They post moments of when they are having fun or when they are looking good. They could take hundreds of selfies before they post one on Instagram.” Guilty as charged. “They don’t post moments when they’re struggling, studying, or when their friends leave them out. They post pictures of themselves being happy at a party with friends or when they are on vacation looking good.” Dr. Greenberg sees this misrepresentation as problematic because “People look at it, and say ‘Oh wow, their life looks so good!’” Cue the comparison.
There are two sides to every story, right? Wrong. Dr. Greenberg sees no benefits in perfectionism. “It’s in and of itself a problematic concept,” she states. “I think when young people are motivated, that’s a wonderful thing. But motivation and perfectionism are not interchangeable. They are two very different concepts, and unrelated.” She says she’s never seen anything good come out of perfectionism. “All I have seen come out of it is anxiety and depression. Perfectionism is laden with anxiety. You’re chasing after something very elusive, and of course it leads to problems, because nobody can be perfect and nobody should be perfect.”
Of course, accepting ourselves as we are is a lot easier said than done, but the daunting conclusion is that so-called perfection isn’t as good as it looks.