I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Now, how many times have you heard that one? Over drinks, maybe, with friends, or perhaps with family at Thanksgiving. It's everyone's favorite flaw, it's that now quite common response to the difficult, final question at job interviews: "My biggest weakness? That's my perfectionism."
You see, for something that supposedly holds us back, it's quite remarkable how many of us are quite happy to hold our hands up and say we're perfectionists. But there's an interesting and serious point because our begrudging admiration for perfection is so pervasive that we never really stop to question that concept in its own terms. What does it say about us and our society that there is a kind of celebration in perfection?
We tend to hold perfectionism up as an insignia of worth. The emblem of the successful. Yet, in my time studying perfectionism, I've 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. 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. And what's more worrying is that over the last 25 years, we have seen perfectionism rise at an alarming rate. And at the same time, we have seen more mental illness among young people than ever before. Rates of suicide in the US alone increased by 25 percent across the last two decades. And we're beginning to see similar trends emerge across Canada, and in my home country, the United Kingdom.
Now, our research is suggesting that perfectionism is rising as society is changing. And 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. And there are some unique characteristics about our preeminent, market-based society that include things like unrestricted choice and personal freedom, and these are characteristics that we feel are contributing to almost epidemic levels of this problem.
So let me give you an example. 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, relative to their parents and their grandparents. 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.
If one side of the modern landscape that we have so lavishly furnished for young people is this idea that there's a perfectible life and that there's a perfectible lifestyle, then the other is surely work. Nothing is out of reach for those who want it badly enough. Or so we're told. This is the idea at the heart of the American dream. Opportunity, meritocracy, the self-made person, hard work. The notion that hard work always pays off. And above all, the idea that we're captains of our own destiny. These ideas, they connect our wealth, our status and our image with our innate, personal value.
But it is, of course, complete fiction. Because even if there were equality of opportunity, the idea that we are captains of our own destiny disguises a much darker reality for young people that they are subject to an almost ongoing economic tribunal. Metrics, rankings, lead tables have emerged as the yardsticks for which merit can be quantified and used to sort young people into schools, classes and colleges.
Education is the first arena where measurement is so publicly played out and where metrics are being used as a tool to improve standards and performance. And it starts young. Young people in America's big city high schools take some 112 mandatory standardized tests between prekindergarten and the end of 12th grade. No wonder young people report a strong need to strive, perform and achieve at the center of modern life. They've been conditioned to define themselves in the strict and narrow terms of grades, percentiles and lead tables.
This is a society that preys on their insecurities. Insecurities about how they are performing and how they are appearing 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 else, bluntly, you're a failure. That feeling of being flawed and deficient is especially pervasive — just talk to young people. "How should I look, how should I behave?" "I should look like that model, I should have as many followers as that Instagram influencer, I must do better in school."
In my role as mentor to many young people, I see these lived effects of perfectionism firsthand. And one student sticks out in my mind very vividly. John, not his real name, was ambitious, hardworking and diligent and on the surface, he was exceptionally high-achieving, often getting first-class grades for his work. Yet, no matter how well John achieved, he always seemed to recast his successes as abject failures, and in meetings with me, he would talk openly about how he'd let himself and others down. John's justification was quite simple: How could he be a success when he was trying so much harder than other people just to attain the same outcomes?
See, John's perfectionism, his unrelenting work ethic, was only serving to expose what he saw as his inner weakness to himself and to others. Cases like John's speak to the harmfulness of perfectionism as a way of being in the world. Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism is never about perfecting things or perfecting tasks. It's not about striving for excellence. John's case highlights this vividly. At its root, perfectionism is about perfecting the self. Or, more precisely, perfecting an imperfect self.
And you can think about it like a mountain of achievement that perfectionism leads us to imagine ourselves scaling. And we think to ourselves, "Once I've reached that summit, then people will see I'm not flawed, and I'll be worth something." But what perfectionism doesn't tell us is that 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. And it's why it's so difficult to treat.
Now, we've known for decades and decades that perfectionism contributes to a host of psychological problems, but there was never a good way to measure it. That was until the late 1980s when two Canadians, Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, came along and developed a self-report measure of perfectionism. So that's right, folks, you can measure this, and it essentially captures three core elements of perfectionism. The first is self-oriented perfectionism, the irrational desire to be perfect: "I strive to be as perfect as I can be." The second is socially prescribed perfectionism, the sense that the social environment is excessively demanding: "I feel that others are too demanding of me." And the third is other-oriented perfectionism, the imposition of unrealistic standards on other people: "If I ask somebody to do something, I expect it to be done perfectly."
Now, research shows that all three elements of perfectionism associate with compromised mental health, including things like heightened depression, heightened anxiety and suicide ideation. But, by far, the most problematic element of perfectionism is socially prescribed perfectionism. That sense that everyone expects me to be perfect. This element of perfectionism has a large correlation with serious mental illness. And with today's emphasis on perfection at the forefront of my mind, I was curious to see whether these elements of perfectionism were changing.
To date, research in this area is focused on immediate family relations, but we wanted to look at it at a broader level. So we took all of the data that had ever been collected in the 27 years since Paul and Gordon developed that perfectionism measure, and we isolated the data in college students. This turned out to be more than 40,000 young people from American, Canadian and British colleges, and with so much data available, we looked to see if there was a trend. And in all, it took us more than three years to collate all of this information, crunch the numbers, and write our report. But it was worth it because our analysis uncovered something alarming. All three elements of perfectionism have increased over time. But socially prescribed perfectionism saw the largest increase, and by far.
In 1989, just nine percent of young people report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. Those are levels that we might typically see in clinical populations. By 2017, that figure had doubled to 18 percent. And by 2050, projections based on the models that we tested indicate that almost one in three young people will report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. Remember, this is the element of perfectionism that has the largest correlation with serious mental illness, and that's for good reason.
Socially prescribed perfectionists feel a unrelenting need to meet the expectations of other people. And even if they do meet yesterday's expectation of perfection, they then raise the bar on themselves to an even higher degree because these folks believe that the better they do, the better that they're expected to do. This breeds a profound sense of helplessness and, worse, hopelessness.
But 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. And yes, treatment is complex. But 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. And then there's what we can do as caregivers.
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. And Mom and Dad 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.
But ultimately, our 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. But I believe that is us washing our hands of the core issue because we have a shared responsibility to create a society and a culture in which young people need less perfection in the first place.
Let's not kid ourselves. Creating that kind of world is an enormous challenge, and for a generation of young people that live their lives in the 24/7 spotlight of metrics, lead tables 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 is 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.
And 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 that's OK. 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.
But 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.
Thank you very much.