The New Cult of Perfectionism: Precarious Working Conditions, Social Media Obsessions and Paranoid Parenting Are Turning Young People into Extreme Perfectionists-With Alarming Results

By McBain, Sophie | New Statesman (1996), May 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

The New Cult of Perfectionism: Precarious Working Conditions, Social Media Obsessions and Paranoid Parenting Are Turning Young People into Extreme Perfectionists-With Alarming Results


McBain, Sophie, New Statesman (1996)


The first thing to know is that perfectionism isn't something to brag about in a job interview. We tend to value it as a character trait that is linked to illustriousness, diligence and high achievement, and if the downside to being a perfectionist is a certain neuroticism, then the pay-off might seem worth it. After all, no one wants to encounter a sloppy surgeon or a slapdash pilot.

Psychologists used to follow this thinking, too. They once distinguished between healthy perfectionism, the kind that makes you aim high and work hard, and maladaptive perfectionism, the sort that turns you into a psychological mess with a debilitating fear of failure.

Nowadays, however, there's broadening agreement among researchers that perfectionism is always harmful. When we focus on its apparent upsides we are often confusing it with more useful qualities such as conscientiousness.

What distinguishes the perfectionist are ruthless self-criticism and a tendency to set unattainable goals. Perfectionism is often self-defeating: a fear of failure and habit of dwelling on mistakes have been shown to drag down performance, whether on the sports field or in the classroom. Worse, it is linked to a range of serious mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression and anorexia. There's a link between perfectionism and suicide.

Perfectionism is on the rise. A 2017 study found that the number of young people who are perfectionists has increased substantially over the past three decades. The researchers distinguished between three kinds: "self-oriented perfectionism", the irrational desire to be perfect; "other-oriented perfectionism", the tendency to hold other people to unrealistic standards; and "socially prescribed perfectionism", the belief that other people are judging you harshly and that you need to be perfect to secure social approval.

The study analysed surveys conducted with more than 40,000 students attending universities in Canada, the US and the UK between 1989 and 20x6 and found that all three forms of perfectionism have become more common. Self-oriented perfectionism has increased by 10 per cent over the past three decades, other-oriented perfectionism by 16 per cent, and socially prescribed perfectionism, the strongest predictor of depression and suicidal thoughts, has increased by almost a third. The authors write that people have become more competitive and materialistic, and point to the "doctrine of neoliberal meritocracy" that leads to individuals being "sorted, sifted and ranked" in school and at work. They argue that anxious, controlling parents are "passing their own achievement anxieties on to their children".

This was the first study to quantify how perfectionism has changed over time, and it echoed other researchers' warnings of an "epidemic" of perfectionism. It also shed new light on the troubling rise in mental illness among young people. British universities are reporting record high levels of depression and anxiety on campus. The leading cause of death for children and teenagers in England and Wales is suicide. At the heart of the modern cult of perfectionism is a tragic irony: the young people striving for perfection so that they can thrive in our achievement-obsessed society are the least equipped to cope with our competitive and unforgiving economic culture.

Perfectionism is less a behaviour than an attitude, a way of existing in the world. It could explain why, although I have been working as a journalist for seven years, I still feel terror each time I file a story that this one is catastrophically bad. Perfectionism might be behind my habit of categorising most successes as near misses and even minor setbacks as evidence that I should do something else with my life.

As a moral philosophy, perfectionism --the idea that the good life consists of striving towards some ethical or political ideal--has a lineage that can be traced to Aristotle. …

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