Perfectionism Part 1: A Problem on the Rise

Perfectionism is on the rise, especially among young people. And the perfectionism I’m talking about isn’t the good kind, the kind that keeps a composer at the piano until every note raises goosebumps. That’s healthy or “adaptive” perfectionism, and, though I very much hope it’s rising among the people currently designing self-driving cars, it’s not the subject of this post.

The unhealthy kind of perfectionism, the maladaptive kind, may feature the same sky-high standards as the healthy kind, but there the similarity ends, because this darker version is driven more by fear of failure than a desire for excellence. And the threat of failure is both real and urgent because, to maladaptive perfectionists, failure means anything short of a flawless performance, a first-place finish, or whatever lofty goal they have set for themselves. Falling short leads to lacerating self-criticism and shame because they’re convinced that their value as human beings rests on their ability to meet their own high expectations—or those of other people. Such perfectionism is agonizing, as well as destructive, so the fact that it’s increasing should be cause for alarm.

Some people know they’re perfectionists. They see that their expectations of themselves are stratospheric, that they always have to do more, that they can’t stand tiny imperfections others barely notice, that they’re mercilessly self-critical. I once asked an accomplished writer friend how he knew when he was finished revising a manuscript, to which he relied “I know I’m done when my editor storms over to my house and rips the pages out of my hands.” In other words, this writer was the kind of perfectionist everyone recognizes.

But the high-achieving, never-satisfied perfectionist is only one version, and some of the less obvious versions may not realize they’re perfectionists. Chronic procrastinators, for example, often suffer from maladaptive perfectionism. Faced with tasks at which they might not excel, they look for ways to cope with the shame of a less-than-perfect performance, either by avoiding the task entirely or by leaving themselves so little time that the effort doesn’t count. “Yeah, I only got a B-plus on my Hamlet essay,” says the procrastinator, shrugging, “but I wrote it in the hour before class.” In fact, a lot of under-achievers are perfectionists, including people who won’t learn new things because they might make mistakes or people who stay in a dull job because they’re able to do it flawlessly.

Looking online I discovered dozens of web pages titled “x signs that you’re a perfectionist” with x ranging from three to twenty. The profusion of pages suggests that many people struggle with the issue, yet the variable number of “signs” suggests some confusion about what perfectionism is and how it’s expressed. That’s because there are actually three different types of perfectionism, all of which can be either healthy or unhealthy.

The three types are self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism.[1] Self-oriented perfectionism is maintaining extremely high or impossible standards for yourself and judging yourself harshly for failing to meet those standards. Some researchers believe self-oriented perfectionism is the most complex form because it so often seems to have features that are both adaptive and maladaptive. For example, it may lead to high achievement and success but make it impossible for high achievers to enjoy—or even perceive—their success. This form of perfectionism has been linked with depression, anorexia nervosa, physical problems such as high blood pressure, suicidal ideation, and early death.

Other-oriented perfectionism is holding peers, colleagues, friends, and/or loved ones to extremely high or impossible standards. It is the least-studied form of perfectionism, though it may have the most immediately visible negative consequences, as it can lead to antagonism or outright conflict when other people fail to meet the perfectionist’s expectations. Over the years, studies have linked a laundry list of antisocial traits to other-oriented perfectionism, including hostility, vindictiveness, and narcissism. Not surprisingly, it can be very hard on intimate relationships. That said, coupled with positive personality traits, other-oriented perfectionism sometimes produces effective leaders.

Socially prescribed perfectionism is being held to other people’s extremely high or impossible standards, usually those of a family, a peer group, a church, a community, a culture, or all of the above. Sufferers feel that that they’re being continually judged, that anything other than a perfect performance will be noticed and condemned in the strongest terms. This form of perfectionism has been linked with low self-esteem, neuroticism, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders, sexual disorders, obsessive-compulsions, suicidal thoughts, and completed suicide. Recently, socially prescribed perfectionism was implicated in a suicide cluster, which I’ll discuss in my next post, on Mormon perfectionism. For now, just know that an influential recent study regards socially prescribed perfectionism as the “most debilitating” of the three forms.

So what causes perfectionism? Though experts sometimes wonder if it has a genetic component, most come down strongly on the side of nurture. Within families, one source is parenting that lacks warmth and that links children’s value to their performance. Parents (or other caregivers) may forge that link by imposing rigid rules and criticizing or punishing lapses. Or they may reserve praise, attention, and rewards for achievement, rather than effort, curiosity, kindness or other forms of self-expression. In teaching their children basic skills, they may be anxious or impatient with mistakes. Whether reinforcement is positive or negative, what matters is that children learn that their value waxes and wanes, in their parents’ eyes, as they meet or fall short of parental expectations. Because people’s self-worth derives from what they see in their parents’ eyes, this correlation of performance and value can have profound effects, convincing people that they are not entitled to love, respect, and sometimes even life unless they consistently meet a high standard of behavior.

Perfectionism also has clear links to childhood trauma, particularly when it produces chaos and disruption. Growing up with parents suffering from a substance abuse disorder or a mental illness that produces unpredictable behavior may lead some children to compensate by trying to make their own behavior faultless. In such situations, parentified children who take on developmentally inappropriate tasks are at special risk because they experience adult responsibility while still immature enough to believe, as children do, that the bad things happening around them are their fault.

Very recent scholarship looks also at the role of siblings, peers, and romantic partners in the development of  perfectionism, concluding that it’s rooted in a mismatch between a person’s needs (for belonging and self-esteem) and other people’s responses to those needs. Inadequate responses by parents and other important individuals weaken people’s sense of self, make others appear judgmental, and produce feelings of shame and unworthiness. Perfectionism tries to patch the damaged self with approval generated by flawless behavior.

Community expectations and pressures may also increase perfectionism. Those raised in missionary or military families are often expected to maintain exemplary conduct at all times, not for their own benefit, but to help a parent’s career. Asian American children face similar pressures, leading to higher-than normal levels of maladaptive perfectionism later in life. Research has shown this perfectionism to be straightforwardly parent-driven, meaning that it’s modeled or deliberately inculcated by parents and correlated with the belief that the family’s standing in the community depends on the children’s achievement. Wherever it occurs, a demand for exemplary behavior or high achievement to benefit parents is practically a recipe for socially prescribed perfectionism.

Though little work has been done specifically on perfectionism among Native Americans, Hispanics, or Black Americans, one preliminary study found links between the experience of racial discrimination and the development of socially prescribed perfectionism among Black middle school students. Further insights will have to wait for studies designed to investigate the relationship between perfectionism and ethnicity, but I suspect that many people of color, particularly those who work or study in majority-white institutions, feel unusual pressure to perform flawlessly because of the persistence of negative stereotypes.

So why is perfectionism increasing overall? The drivers of perfectionism that I have mentioned are not new—far from it, in fact. Yet a recently published meta-analysis (a review and synthesis of many different studies) found that self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism rose dramatically between 1989 and 2016. That study attributes the increase to social and economic changes that have taken place over the last thirty years.

The first change is the emergence of an economic and political system that worships the logic of the free market and seeks to extend it into every area of life. According to that logic, all human activity is based on competition, with winners and losers the inevitable (and wholly natural) result. Even those of us who don’t sell goods or services are encouraged to develop our “brands” and compete with one another for attention and approval, as well as resources. As a result, the collectivism of earlier eras has given way to “a wave of competitive individualism,” marked by rising narcissism and declining empathy. And the stakes of the competition have never been higher or more visible, as spectacles of sumptuous wealth and horrific poverty play nonstop on streets and video screens. Those stakes, along with the general emphasis on competition, drive anxieties that help breed perfectionism. If only “the best” get the goodies, then being the best becomes an existential imperative.

Increasingly high stakes have also shaped new styles of parenting. We’ve all seen hundreds of articles about “helicopter” and “bulldozer” and “snowplow ” parents, and, though we may roll our eyes at the gimmicky names, these articles track a real shift in how we raise our children. Worried about the competition our children face, some of us hover, clear obstacles, take over, communicating that even small mistakes or setbacks have no place in our children’s lives. I’ve written before about how damaging such intervention is to the development of autonomy and resilience, but a recent study suggests that “intrusive parenting” promotes maladaptive perfectionism. Clear every last bump from your children’s path, and you teach them both that bumps are intolerable and that their own efforts at bump-clearing are likely to fail. The result may be maladaptive perfectionism of multiple types.

Finally, along with the ascent of market-based values have come radical changes in the way we present ourselves and relate to one another. Social media encourage us to craft idealized portraits of ourselves, and many of us do. We go places where we’d like to be seen and take photos of ourselves there—more photos in the past three years than were taken in the previous two centuries since the invention of photography. With photo editing software, we remove blemishes, add or subtract inches, make whatever changes we’d like to see in ourselves; then we arrange and caption the photos to suggest a successful, enviable life. We post pithy remarks to show that we’re hip or insightful or passionate or woke, and if we can’t come up with the words on our own, we borrow them. We cultivate our networks so that we’re visibly connected to lots of interesting people, and, above all, we keep score: in likes and followers and, for a few lucky and industrious souls, subscribers.

It’s a lot of work, actually. And, according to recent research, it’s causing dissatisfaction and alienation, especially among young people. All these idealized images are making real people feel inadequate, not just about their own social media platforms, but about who they are. Body dysmorphic disorder, which has long been a problem for young Americans, has risen as much as 30 percent since the advent of social media only eight years ago. People are not just made anxious by images of other people; they increasingly feel diminished by their own creations. Over and over, plastic surgeons now hear “I want to look like my Snapchat photo” and must decide if their scalpels can make life literally imitate art.

Such dissatisfaction is only one aspect of the perfectionism that social media has fostered. In addition to being places where people use idealized images to compete for attention and resources, many platforms can be scathing in their negative judgments, especially those made under the cloak of anonymity. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re young, and until now most of us had the luxury of being able to leave those mistakes behind where only a few people knew about them. No more—or at least not if you live online, as so many young people do. Post an ill-conceived YouTube video or say the wrong thing on Twitter, and you may be buried in lacerating criticism and personal attacks that spill over into real life. We have all read stories of social media mis-steps leading to bullying, ostracism, depression, and suicide, so is it any wonder many young people are convinced that their world is harsh and judgmental, just waiting for them to make a mistake? Of such convictions is perfectionism made.

There’s more to say about perfectionism, of course, because it’s a complex topic, but I’ll let it rest, for now. In my next post, I look at two groups of people who have been dealing with the issue for a long time and so have something to teach the rest of us: military brats and Mormons. So stay tuned for more on the subject of perfectionism.

[1] This paradigm was first proposed in a 1990 article by Paul L. Hewett and Gordon L. Flett titled “Perfectionism and Depression: A Multidimensional Analysis.” Further information comes from many sources, including Samuel O. Peer and James S. McGraw, “Mixed Method Study of Perfectionism and Religiosity among Mormons,” an essay on which my upcoming post on religious perfectionism will draw heavily, and Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time,” an essay on which this post draws heavily.

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