Is perfectionism fuelling a mental health meltdown?
We’ve all heard the accusations levelled at stereotypical ‘Millennials’ by older generations: that today’s 20- and 30-somethings would rather spend their money on smashed avocado than pensions or property and prefer to experience the world through an Instagram filter than IRL.
Then there’s that whole ‘snowflake’ thing; the idea that this generation is too soft and sensitive to cope with life. Is there any substance to it? And if there is, shouldn’t we be trying to understand the reasons and impact rather than just laugh along with the general consensus that they just need stop sobbing and toughen up a bit. When has that attitude ever worked? Besides, how can anyone know what’s right for a generation unlike any other, the very first to grow up online, human guinea pigs for the effect that being networked to the entire world, 24/7 has on the psyche and the soul. It’s bound to be having a massive effect, and we need to be keeping an eye on it. Thankfully some experts are studying and measuring it, and the results are disturbing.
Student suicide numbers have been in the news a lot over the last few months for all the wrong reasons. A new study has shown that those aged between 18 and 25 really are more sensitive than previous generations. Research in Psychological Bulletin suggests that ‘perfectionistic tendencies’ have increased over the past 30 years and, when a goal isn’t reached, it’s followed by a brutal self-assessment of failure that can lead to depression and associated aspects of mental health issues, such as anxiety, OCD and eating disorders.
The effects of great expectations
“The results of the analysis weren’t a surprise,” says Dr Thomas Curran, co-author of the study and lecturer at the University of Bath. “It’s evident that the number of people with perfectionistic tendencies is on the rise. We’ve also seen a rise in youth mental health issues, which fed into the expectations that run parallel to perfectionism.”
The study measured whether subjects had high personal expectations (self-oriented perfectionism), social expectations (socially-prescribed perfectionism), or expectations of others (other-oriented perfectionism). “All three dimensions increased, but the perception that the social environment is more demanding went up twice as much as the other two categories,” explains Thomas. “This suggests there is a big increase in young people’s perceptions of social expectations compared with previous generations.”
Thomas points to millennials growing up in a more challenging set of economic and social circumstances and to an acceleration in students’ focus on perfectionism linked to the emergence of social media. “It clearly plays a role and magnifies these tendencies, particularly with people comparing their own self image with others,” says Thomas. The findings echo a report published by the World Health Organisation, which predicted by 2030, mental health problems will be both the leading type of disease and cause of death worldwide.
What can you do to curb your enthusiasm?
So how can someone suffering from perfectionism curb and manage their traits? By constantly striving and looking for success, when perfectionists fall short they often feel even worse. “It becomes about the unattainable place they want to get to, rather than seeing that it’s about the process and learning along the way”. On the rare occasions perfectionists do succeed, they put the positive outcome down to luck and move the goalposts again.
Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd’s answer is to constantly ask people to reassess and reflect on the reasoning behind their goals. Often people target working hard and doing well as a way of reaching the ultimate goal of happiness and enjoying their life but this is often the start of the vicious cycle. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard or set high goals, but it’s about being fair to yourself,” she adds. “The idea that success is what makes you happy is almost a trap.”
Attaining perfection is a wonderful denouement, but it’s a holy grail as elusive as riding your pet unicorn.
Always be mindful of ‘all or nothing’
One mistake doesn’t equal a failure. If 95% of something has gone well, spend 95% of your time focusing on the good stuff, rather than what you weren’t happy with.
Aiming for perfection is an imperfect mindset. You’re setting yourself up for failure; aim high, but be realistic.
Don’t move your goal posts
Research shows we quickly adjust to new life circumstances and consider it normal. Although the human capacity to adjust can be helpful if things
get harder, be aware the ‘hedonic treadmill’ when chasing happiness doesn’t actually get you anywhere. Expectations and desires increase to match what you have. When we reach our goals, we reset them a little further away.
Enjoy the process, not the destination
Goals might form the foundations
of the adventure and the reason for setting out, but actually reaching them is not what’s important. The process brings meaning and therefore, greater happiness.
Do it for yourself
Doing things for external validation is precarious: you can only feel as good as others believe you to be. Instead, build an internal log of how you’re doing, and recognise your strengths and successes.
Don’t fear failure
The fear of doing it wrong creates mental paralysis. Remind yourself that mistakes are an opportunity to learn faster, and often lead you in a better direction as a result.
Be clear about what it is you’re trying to achieve and whether
The process of how you get to your goal is as important as you achieving the things you want to. Tick them off a list and give yourself a richly-deserved ‘well done’.
Perfect is the enemy of great
How many projects have you thrown away because they weren’t perfect, or because you were worried how others would judge them? Getting something out is better than abandoning your hard work.
Think your fears through to their conclusions
Perfectionists often think catastrophically. Consider the worst possible outcome of your fear, then be honest with yourself about how likely that scenario actually is.
Unique is unique
Instead of focusing on the negatives and what everyone else wants you to change, pay attention to your strengths and the things that make you unique.
Good enough? Good enough!
No matter how many mistakes you make, or how slow you progress, embracing good enough, and sharing your work, is still better than keeping everyone else waiting for perfection.
You raise me up Everyone has their version of perfection and there is no clear definition of what it is or how to reach it. The most important thing is to find beauty in your flaws and surround yourself with people who lift you up, not put you down.
Sail the relationship
What you expect of yourself and others is your rule. How you do things is your choice, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else has to sign up for it.
Most people feel worse after being on social media if they use it aimlessly, compared to if they’re on it for a set period or using it as a tool to catch up with friends and family. Being a voyeur isn’t as good as engaging with people so if it’s getting too much, it can be good to take a break.
Find a place to reset your mind
It might be the local coffee shop, the hackerspace in your city, a particular park, or whatever. The point is to find that place where you can go where you’re reminded that the world’s a lot bigger than just you.
Perfectionists have a tendency to play the starring role in countless self-doubt sagas. Use this checklist to remove yourself from the cast list permanently.
- Are my thoughts factual, or my interpretations?
- Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
- Is this situation as bad as I’m making it out to be?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that to happen?
- Will this matter in five years? At the pivotal moments of my life (moving abroad, childbirth), will this matter?