How the Pursuit of Perfection Is a Dangerous Desire
Research reveals the physical and emotional perils of perfectionism.
Posted Apr 14, 2019
Striving to be our personal best is a timeless aspiration; often associated with ambition and motivation, fueled by encouragement and inspiration. But striving to be perfect might be a sign of the times, fueled by unrealistic, expectations, leading to often disastrous consequences.
The Pursuit of Perfectionism
Research reveals that the pursuit of perfectionism is on the rise. Investigating the impact of increased social and cultural pressure for young people to be economically successful, Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill tracked perfectionistic tendencies within American, British, and Canadian college students from 1989 to 2016.[i] They adopt a research-based broad definition of perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”
Within the sample studied, Curran and Hill documented an increase in three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism. They note that their findings suggest that young people within recent generations perceive that others demand more of them, and they demand more of others, as well as themselves.
As perceived perfectionistic demands increase, are there consequences in continually striving to meet them? Research suggests the answer is yes, unfortunately.
The Problem of Perfect
Simon Sherry and Martin M. Smith (2019), in “Young People Drowning in a Rising Tide of Perfectionism” outline the toxic side effects of pursuing perfectionism.[ii] They define perfectionism as involving “striving for flawlessness,” a state which renders an individual sensitive to criticism and plagued by self-doubt when it comes to estimating their performance abilities.
They studied a sample of approximately 25,000 people, ranging in age from 15 to 49. Taking note of the increase in perfectionism over the years, they concluded that today´s younger generation is more perfectionistic than ever. They suggest that this phenomenon may be fueled by everything from parents who are critical and controlling, to boastful social media postings reflecting unrealistic images of other people living perfect lives.
Specifically, regarding social media, Sherry and Smith wisely observe that “perfectionism is a myth and social media is its storyteller.” This observation has enormous contemporary relevance, given the amount of time many people spend online.
Snapshots of Success
Most people who spend time on the Internet spend at least a portion of their day interacting through some type of social media. Whether expressing opinions on Twitter, connecting with colleagues on LinkedIn, or looking up old high school classmates on Facebook, digital observation of the lives of others has become a part of modern social fabric.
There are many positive aspects to being able to keep up with each other in the virtual world. But sometimes we forget that not every airbrushed, glamorous, smiling selfie displayed online accurately reflects the real world—or the real lives of the posters.
Catering to the human desire to put our best “face” forward, social media sites are ideally suited for snapshots of success. They are places to show off everything from your new car to your new grandson. A place to feature stunning photos from exotic vacations, surrounded by picture-perfect family and friends, with over the top, sometimes taunting text to match. “Best vacation ever! Don´t you wish you were here?”
Unfortunately, although such posts are interesting and visually stimulating, social comparison takes a toll over time.
The Epidemic of Perfect
Sherry and Smith observe that the pursuit of perfectionism has increased in the last quarter century, impacting both genders equally. Focusing on young people and the effects of perfectionism over time, Sherry and Smith conclude that aging perfectionists “appear to unravel.” They note that perfectionists become more neurotic in the sense that they are more likely to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and envy. They also appear to lose traits of conscientiousness such as reliability, organization skills, and efficiency.
The result? Sherry and Smith note that perfectionists may experience failure-related depression, stress, and even suicide. Curran and Hill cite research documenting similar findings in connection with self-oriented perfectionism. They describe socially prescribed perfectionism as even more debilitating, due to the perception of the expectations of others as “excessive, uncontrollable, and unfair, making failure experiences and negative emotional states common.”
So if perfectionism is an increasingly personal and social problem, is there a solution?
The Perfect Solution
Sherry and Smith define unconditional love as an “antidote” to the deadly epidemic of perfectionism. They suggest parents strive to be less critical, controlling and overprotective, valuing young people for more than their accomplishments.
It stands to reason that similar behavior by friends, coworkers, neighbors, and romantic partners can provide a similar degree of protection against the ill effects of chasing the illusion. Support, validation, and affirmation can counteract unrealistic expectations, and solidify meaningful relationships both on and offline.
[i]Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill. 2019. “Perfectionism Is Increasing over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016.” Psychological Bulletin 145 (4): 410–29. doi:10.1037/bul0000138.
[ii]Simon Sherry and Martin M. Smith, in “Young People Drowning in a Rising Tide of Perfectionism,” The Epoch Times, B8, February 14-20, 2019.