Perfectionism. It’s not a new concept, but the idea of perfectionism and the word itself seem to be popping up more and more frequently these days. The question might have even crossed your mind: Why does it seem like everyone is increasingly becoming obsessed with being “perfect”?
What exactly is perfectionism?
To understand why perfectionism seems to be the new normal these days, it’s helpful to look at what researchers actually define as perfectionism. The definition of what perfectionism actually is has changed over the years, but researchers have, in general, stated that perfectionism is a cognitive and behavioural pattern that leads to people wanting to strive for excellence and being concerned with how they are evaluated in society (Papay, 2020).
There has been a distinction between what can be adaptive and non-adaptive perfectionism, as perfectionism doesn’t automatically indicate problematic behaviour or thoughts (Papay, 2020; Ong, 2021). The adaptive kind of perfectionism can allow people to do well in their school, work, and social lives. It can motivate and help people to strive to do better. This kind of perfectionism helps people celebrate their achievements and can result in greater levels of high self-esteem (Missildine, 1963, as cited in Papay, 2020).
However, the other perfectionism – the non-adaptive kind – can actually cause immense distress and dissatisfaction with oneself. This kind of perfectionism is when that inner critical voice comes out that tells you that no matter what you do, it will never be good enough. Instead of leading to motivation to do well and achieve goals, this kind of perfectionism can lead to people trying to achieve inherently unattainable and unrealistic goals and can lead to a decrease in self-esteem and increase mental health distress (Shafran & Mansell, 2001, as cited in Ong, 2021). Perfectionism can show up in different ways. It may look like people constantly worrying over potentially failing, spending excessive time arranging things, avoiding situations or tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed or to avoid the risk of failing, or being overly self-critical when people don’t meet a goal they have set for themselves (Ong, 2021).
Hewitt and Flett (1991, as cited in Curran & Hill, 2019) have even further delved into what perfectionism is and have presented a popular model that describes the three forms of perfectionism:
- Self-Oriented Perfectionism
- This refers to the pressure people put upon themselves to be perfect. People can beat themselves up when they don’t perform perfectly and have a hard time celebrating their own achievements. They feel they don’t measure up to what and who they should be, no matter what they do.
- Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
- This is the perfectionism that leads to people seeking approval from others, with the perceived need to display oneself as perfect all the time. There is constant attention about how others are evaluating and judging you. (Sound familiar? This kind of perfectionism is the one linked to that pressure people put on themselves to appear as “perfect” on social media sites to seek approval from others (Vogel & Rose, 2017).
- Other-Oriented Perfectionism
- This final form of perfectionism refers to people expecting and demanding perfection from others, and perceiving them as failures if they do not live up to people’s expectations of being “perfect”.
Some of these may sound familiar to you. Maybe you identify with some of these forms of perfectionism (I know I do – many real-life examples instantly come to mind).
Now that we’ve gone over what perfectionism is, let’s explore the questions:
Are more and more people in modern society actually becoming perfectionists?
If so, why are there increasing rates of perfectionism in today’s society?
Curran and Hill (2019) conducted a study where they looked at how rates of perfectionism in Western society (specifically in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain) have changed among age cohorts over time, looking at the years between 1989 and 2006. They found that perfectionism is, in fact, increasing over time.
In their work, Curran and Hill (2019) name a number of factors that they believe to be contributing to this increase in perfectionism in our society, including:
- The current economic culture in our society encourages people to compete with one another to get to the top of the food chain. This culture leads to people putting others down and trying to sell themselves as perfectly as they can to try to get the best possible academic and career opportunities.
- The rise in the culture of meritocracy. Meritocracy refers to the idea that people get ahead in society based on their accomplishments, instead of considering the different social and economic circumstances that affect what kinds of social, academic, and career opportunities are available for people. Therefore, individuals who have not met the education and career “goals” that society has stated they need to have achieved in order to be considered successful, can feel a sense of failure within themselves. This can increase the pressure to feel the need to prove oneself and be “perfect”.
- Changes in parenting practices over time. With the rise of meritocracy and the changes in the economic culture over time, parents have gotten more pressure put on them too. In addition to the pressure to be perfect themselves, the culture of meritocracy and competitive individualism means that parents feel that their children’s successes are a reflection of them and how well they have done their parenting. This has led to parents in our society increasingly putting pressure on their children to do well too.
- The rise of social media. It’s probably not a surprise to you that social media feeds into our ideas about what is and is not perfect (Kurz, 2021). Constant exposure to seemingly perfect people with perfect lives on social media leads people to believe that these perfect lives and people are attainable, when they are, in fact, unrealistic goals.
Overall, today’s social and economic environments are tougher than ever before (Kurz, 2021). Younger people today feel more pressured to succeed and achieve more than their parents did at their age (Kurz, 2021). The competitive economic culture, the culture of meritocracy, the rise of social media, and the pressure to be perfect put on people by parents, friends, colleagues, teachers, etc. all maintain a rigid view of what success can be and leads to many people not feeling like they live up to who they feel like they should be.
Okay, so perfectionism is increasing in society – does that really matter?
Non-adaptive forms of perfectionism can be incredibly debilitating. Psychotherapist Eva Kurz has claimed that many of the young adults she works with simply never feel like they are “good enough” (2021). There is a wealth of research linking perfectionist tendencies to increasing rates of depression (Smith et al., 2021). If you’re a student who feels the pressure of trying to perform perfectly in school, you may know that perfectionism can also lead to higher rates of academic burnout (Seong et al., 2021). Socially-prescribed perfectionism in particular is often linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicide, and social phobia (Curran & Hill, 2019).
When the expectations of others and society are so incredibly high on people today, it makes them impossible to feel a sense of achievement. If goals are impossible to achieve, one will always feel like they are failing. Believing that one is failing all the time can lead people to see themselves as inherently flawed and makes it hard to accept oneself for who they are (Smith et al., 2021).
In today’s economic and social climate, how can I battle non-adaptive perfectionism?
First and foremost, be kind to yourself.
As hard as it sounds, giving yourself a bit of self-compassion can help you battle the feeling that you are failing all the time (Kurz, 2021). Kurz (2021) also makes a good point that we have been going through a pandemic that has shifted our personal, school, and career lives drastically and has changed what opportunities are available to us. Any career, financial, or school opportunity that was negatively impacted by the pandemic is indeed devastating and unfair, but is not anyone’s fault or defines anyone’s level of success.
No, it is not possible to take a magic wand and change the pressure that society has placed on people to be perfect. We cannot stop “perfect” people popping up on Instagram. Fighting and winning the battle against the culture of meritocracy does not happen overnight. But you can remind yourself that your self-worth is not defined by how you compare to others around you. Your success is not defined by how successful others around you are. If you find that your mental health and self of self-worth deteriorates after using social media platforms, evaluate how much time you want to continue spending on those sites.
Remember that “perfect” is not real. It is not attainable – by anyone! Despite people striving to achieve perfection, it never actually comes. Instead, you can make goals for yourself that are aligned with what you can achieve and with what is attainable for you within the life that you live. Society does not know what is right for you – only you do.
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1037/bul0000138
Kurz, E. (2021). I will never be good enough!! – The rise of perfectionism among young adults. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 23(1), 85-98. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1080/13642537.2021.1881140
Seong, H., Lee, S., & Chang, E. (2021). Perfectionism and academic burnout: Longitudinal extension of the bifactor model of perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 172, 1-6. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110589
Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Ray, C., Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (2021). Is perfectionism a vulnerability factor for depressive symptoms, a complication of depressive symptoms, or both? A meta-analytic test of 67 longitudinal studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 84, 1-19. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1016/j.cpr.2021.101982
Ong, C. W. (2021). Treatment of clinical perfectionism using acceptance and commitment therapy. Dissertation abstracts international: Section B: The sciences and engineering, 82(2B), ii-170. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8837&context=etd#:~:text=ACT%20is%20a%20process%2Dbased,one%2Dmonth%20follow%2Dup.
Papay, K. (2020). Perfect people, perfect environment: Applying person-environment interaction theory to examine the impact of instagram use on health-related psychological outcomes among perfectionists. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I. (2477216709). Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/dissertations-theses/perfect-people-environment-applying-person/docview/2477216709/se-2?accountid=13800
Vogel, E. A, & Rose, J. P. (2017). Perceptions of perfection: The influence of social media on interpersonal evaluations. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 39(6), 317–325. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2017.1356303