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(This post was originally published on January 8th, 2018)
During my high school graduation, one of my favorite teachers went up to speak about our class and wish us off into the next stage of our lives. One of the things he lauded about our class was our work ethic and grades. In our class, having all As in honors classes would not even put you in the top 10 of our class. While it is something to be celebrated on some level, it was also indicative of another rising social trend in the Z generation and the one before us (the Millennials). The epidemic of perfectionism has been ravaging the mental health of the younger generations.
Perfectionism is defined as being extremely self-critical and having excessively high standards for oneself (Live Science). Recent research reveals that perfectionism is on the rise for college students. In a study done in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, college students took a survey called the “Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale,” a scale that measures expectations of oneself, your perception of how other people see you, and your expectations of others. Between 1989 and 2017, the average perfectionism score went up 10%, but on the perception of other people score, the average went up 33%. Researchers point to social media as the most likely culprit in the large uptick in perfectionism. Social media accounts tend to put all aspects of your life into the eyes of social circles and your eyes on the profiles of the people around you, perpetuating a need to be as perfect as possible as to not lose social standing (even if the reality is that none of us are perfect). I myself wonder if there has also been a general uptick in wanting to get ahead for the future. I remember being in high school and feeling as if a B or B+ would spell death for me because of the competition to get into universities and colleges. Tripping up, even a little bit, seemed like it wasn’t an option. I was aware that even while I was competing with my peers, I would eventually be competing on a world stage to get into the top universities, and failure didn’t feel like an option. I feared disappointing the people around me and myself. I could feel it in the peers around me as well. None of us wanted to fail, not even a little bit, and if we did, there was no way any of us would reveal it to each other.
Perfectionism has long since been perceived as a sort of acceptable flaw. There is a connotation that perfectionism is actually something employers look for in potential job candidates. However, perfectionism can actually have some very negative effects on your social and physical wellbeing. First, it is important to note that being a perfectionist and being a high achiever are not the same things. Perfectionists often hate the journey to their success, as they focus entirely on the end result of the quest. In the process, they often fail to consider other people’s feelings or thoughts. High achievers enjoy both the journey and the outcome while being considerate of those around them (Forbes). Perfectionists suffer from immense self loathing (as making a mistake translates into being a failure) and procrastination, and their relationships also suffer due to high standards of themselves and others around them. In the short run, perfectionism has been associated with health conditions such as migraines and asthma (Live Science). In the long run, research has shown that people with higher perfectionist scores also have a 51% increased chance of premature death, often associated with the higher rates of anxiety. Among college kids, perfectionism has also been associated with rising levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Perfectionism is an epidemic of the younger generations. Given the new research on college students across three nations, there has been a large uptick perfectionist values. Researchers have tied it to social media, but no matter the cause, perfectionism can prove to be detrimental to the social and physical lives of perfectionists and those around them. As a college student, I’m no stranger to the negative self-talk and problems that arise due to perfectionism. However, it’s not too late. Perhaps we need to start being more comfortable with vulnerability and making mistakes. To get us to where we want to be, we have been trained to think that even going slightly off track would spell failure. However, it's been killing our mental and physical well-being. Perhaps there's something more to life than the goals we set out for ourselves? Maybe we need to take a second look regarding the value of the journey.