Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse | Thomas Curran


I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Now, how many times
have you heard that one? Over drinks, maybe, with friends,
or perhaps with family at Thanksgiving. It’s everyone’s favorite flaw, it’s that now quite common response to the difficult, final question
at job interviews: “My biggest weakness? That’s my perfectionism.” You see, for something
that supposedly holds us back, it’s quite remarkable how many of us
are quite happy to hold our hands up and say we’re perfectionists. But there’s an interesting
and serious point because our begrudging admiration
for perfection is so pervasive that we never really stop to question
that concept in its own terms. What does it say about us and our society that there is a kind
of celebration in perfection? We tend to hold perfectionism up
as an insignia of worth. The emblem of the successful. Yet, in my time studying perfectionism, I’ve seen limited evidence
that perfectionists are more successful. Quite the contrary — they feel discontented and dissatisfied amid a lingering sense
that they’re never quite perfect enough. We know from clinician case reports that perfectionism conceals
a host of psychological difficulties, including things like depression,
anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and even suicide ideation. And what’s more worrying
is that over the last 25 years, we have seen perfectionism rise
at an alarming rate. And at the same time, we have seen more mental illness
among young people than ever before. Rates of suicide in the US alone increased by 25 percent
across the last two decades. And we’re beginning to see similar trends
emerge across Canada, and in my home country,
the United Kingdom. Now, our research is suggesting that perfectionism is rising
as society is changing. And a changed society reflects
a changed sense of personal identity and, with it, differences in the way
in which young people interact with each other and the world around them. And there are some unique characteristics
about our preeminent, market-based society that include things
like unrestricted choice and personal freedom, and these are characteristics
that we feel are contributing to almost epidemic levels of this problem. So let me give you an example. Young people today are more preoccupied
with the attainment of the perfect life and lifestyle. In terms of their image,
status and wealth. Data from Pew show that young people born in the US in the late 1980s are 20 percent more likely
to report being materially rich as among their most important life goals, relative to their parents
and their grandparents. Young people also borrow more heavily
than did older generations, and they spend a much greater proportion
of their income on image goods and status possessions. These possessions,
their lives and their lifestyles are now displayed in vivid detail
on the ubiquitous social media platforms of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. In this new visual culture, the appearance of perfection
is far more important than the reality. If one side of the modern landscape that we have so lavishly
furnished for young people is this idea that there’s
a perfectible life and that there’s a perfectible lifestyle, then the other is surely work. Nothing is out of reach
for those who want it badly enough. Or so we’re told. This is the idea at the heart
of the American dream. Opportunity, meritocracy,
the self-made person, hard work. The notion that hard work always pays off. And above all, the idea
that we’re captains of our own destiny. These ideas, they connect
our wealth, our status and our image with our innate,
personal value. But it is, of course, complete fiction. Because even if there were
equality of opportunity, the idea that we are captains
of our own destiny disguises a much darker
reality for young people that they are subject to an almost
ongoing economic tribunal. Metrics, rankings, lead tables have emerged as the yardsticks
for which merit can be quantified and used to sort young people
into schools, classes and colleges. Education is the first arena where measurement
is so publicly played out and where metrics are being used as a tool to improve standards
and performance. And it starts young. Young people in America’s
big city high schools take some 112 mandatory standardized tests between prekindergarten
and the end of 12th grade. No wonder young people report
a strong need to strive, perform and achieve
at the center of modern life. They’ve been conditioned
to define themselves in the strict and narrow terms
of grades, percentiles and lead tables. This is a society that preys
on their insecurities. Insecurities about
how they are performing and how they are appearing
to other people. This is a society that amplifies
their imperfections. Every flaw, every unforeseen setback increases a need to perform
more perfectly next time, or else, bluntly, you’re a failure. That feeling of being flawed and deficient
is especially pervasive — just talk to young people. “How should I look, how should I behave?” “I should look like that model, I should have as many followers
as that Instagram influencer, I must do better in school.” In my role as mentor to many young people, I see these lived effects
of perfectionism firsthand. And one student sticks out
in my mind very vividly. John, not his real name, was ambitious, hardworking and diligent and on the surface,
he was exceptionally high-achieving, often getting first-class
grades for his work. Yet, no matter how well John achieved, he always seemed to recast
his successes as abject failures, and in meetings with me, he would talk openly about
how he’d let himself and others down. John’s justification was quite simple: How could he be a success when he was trying so much harder
than other people just to attain the same outcomes? See, John’s perfectionism,
his unrelenting work ethic, was only serving to expose
what he saw as his inner weakness to himself and to others. Cases like John’s speak
to the harmfulness of perfectionism as a way of being in the world. Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism is never about
perfecting things or perfecting tasks. It’s not about striving for excellence. John’s case highlights this vividly. At its root, perfectionism
is about perfecting the self. Or, more precisely,
perfecting an imperfect self. And you can think about it
like a mountain of achievement that perfectionism leads us
to imagine ourselves scaling. And we think to ourselves,
“Once I’ve reached that summit, then people will see I’m not flawed,
and I’ll be worth something.” But what perfectionism doesn’t tell us is that soon after reaching that summit, we will be called down again to the fresh
lowlands of insecurity and shame, just to try and scale that peak again. This is the cycle of self-defeat. In the pursuit of unattainable perfection,
a perfectionist just cannot step off. And it’s why it’s so difficult to treat. Now, we’ve known for decades and decades that perfectionism contributes
to a host of psychological problems, but there was never
a good way to measure it. That was until the late 1980s when two Canadians,
Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, came along and developed
a self-report measure of perfectionism. So that’s right, folks,
you can measure this, and it essentially captures
three core elements of perfectionism. The first is self-oriented perfectionism, the irrational desire to be perfect: “I strive to be as perfect as I can be.” The second is socially
prescribed perfectionism, the sense that the social environment
is excessively demanding: “I feel that others
are too demanding of me.” And the third is
other-oriented perfectionism, the imposition of unrealistic
standards on other people: “If I ask somebody to do something,
I expect it to be done perfectly.” Now, research shows that all
three elements of perfectionism associate with compromised mental health, including things
like heightened depression, heightened anxiety and suicide ideation. But, by far, the most problematic
element of perfectionism is socially prescribed perfectionism. That sense that everyone
expects me to be perfect. This element of perfectionism has a large correlation
with serious mental illness. And with today’s emphasis on perfection
at the forefront of my mind, I was curious to see whether these
elements of perfectionism were changing. To date, research in this area
is focused on immediate family relations, but we wanted to look at it
at a broader level. So we took all of the data
that had ever been collected in the 27 years since Paul and Gordon
developed that perfectionism measure, and we isolated the data
in college students. This turned out to be
more than 40,000 young people from American, Canadian
and British colleges, and with so much data available,
we looked to see if there was a trend. And in all, it took us
more than three years to collate all of this information,
crunch the numbers, and write our report. But it was worth it because our analysis
uncovered something alarming. All three elements of perfectionism
have increased over time. But socially prescribed perfectionism
saw the largest increase, and by far. In 1989, just nine percent of young people
report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. Those are levels that we might
typically see in clinical populations. By 2017, that figure
had doubled to 18 percent. And by 2050, projections
based on the models that we tested indicate that almost one
in three young people will report clinically relevant levels
of socially prescribed perfectionism. Remember, this is the element
of perfectionism that has the largest correlation
with serious mental illness, and that’s for good reason. Socially prescribed perfectionists
feel a unrelenting need to meet the expectations of other people. And even if they do meet
yesterday’s expectation of perfection, they then raise the bar on themselves
to an even higher degree because these folks believe
that the better they do, the better that they’re expected to do. This breeds a profound sense
of helplessness and, worse, hopelessness. But is there hope? Of course there’s hope. Perfectionists can and should
hold on to certain things — they are typically bright, ambitious,
conscientious and hardworking. And yes, treatment is complex. But a little bit of self-compassion, going easy on ourselves
when things don’t go well, can turn those qualities
into greater personal peace and success. And then there’s what
we can do as caregivers. Perfectionism develops
in our formative years, and so young people are more vulnerable. Parents can help their children by supporting them unconditionally
when they’ve tried but failed. And Mom and Dad can resist
their understandable urge in today’s highly competitive society
to helicopter-parent, as a lot of anxiety is communicated when parents take on their kids’
successes and failures as their own. But ultimately, our research
raises important questions about how we are structuring society and whether our society’s heavy emphasis
on competition, evaluation and testing is benefiting young people. It’s become commonplace
for public figures to say that young people just need
a little bit more resilience in the face of these new
and unprecedented pressures. But I believe that is us
washing our hands of the core issue because we have a shared responsibility to create a society and a culture
in which young people need less perfection in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves. Creating that kind of world
is an enormous challenge, and for a generation of young people that live their lives
in the 24/7 spotlight of metrics, lead tables and social media, perfectionism is inevitable, so long as they lack any purpose in life greater than how they are appearing or how they are performing
to other people. What can they do about it? Every time they are knocked down
from that mountaintop, they see no other option
but to try scaling that peak again. The ancient Greeks knew that this endless struggle
up and down the same mountain is not the road to happiness. Their image of hell
was a man called Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to keep rolling
the same boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down
and have to start again. So long as we teach young people that there is nothing more real
or meaningful in their lives than this hopeless quest for perfection, then we are going to condemn
future generations to that same futility and despair. And so we’re left with a question. When are we going to appreciate that there is something
fundamentally inhuman about limitless perfection? No one is flawless. If we want to help our young people
escape the trap of perfectionism, then we will teach them
that in a chaotic world, life will often defeat us, but that’s OK. Failure is not weakness. If we want to help our young people
outgrow this self-defeating snare of impossible perfection, then we will raise them in a society
that has outgrown that very same delusion. But most of all, if we want our young people
to enjoy mental, emotional and psychological health, then we will invite them
to celebrate the joys and the beauties of imperfection as a normal and natural part
of everyday living and loving. Thank you very much. (Applause)