Research — 01 February 2018

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet

As we ease into 2018, many people are attempting to follow through on their ambitious New Year’s resolutions. And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to succeed and make this year (or life) as great as it can be, you may want to fight the urge to be a perfectionist.

According to a new study released in the journal Psychological Bulletin, millennials are more likely than previous generations to put pressure on ourselves — and others — to be perfect, possibly to the detriment of our mental health.
The study analyzed data from more than 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students from the late 1980s to 2016. Each of these students had completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, a test measuring general changes in perfectionism. The MPS looked at three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, or an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and other-oriented, or putting unrealistic standards on others.
As it happens, more recent generations of college students reported higher scores for each form of perfectionism than any of the generations before them. Between 1989 and 2016, self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10%, socially prescribed perfectionism scores increased by 33%, and other-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 16%. And, according to the researchers, that pressure to be perfect has been linked to mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
So why are millennials more likely to put pressure on ourselves to be perfect?
Well, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the authors of the study say that social media has made it way easier to compare ourselves to other people and, in turn, become more competitive as we try to one-up each other based on what we see on our Instagram or Facebook feeds. (Friendly reminder: Those feeds aren’t always reflective of real life.) Thomas Curran, PhD, lead author of the study, tells Refinery29 that the drive to compete is instilled in us before we even enter preschool, in response to an innate need to belong.

Millennials, it seems, have more metrics to measure success — and therefore failure — than their parents.

After preschool, those perfectionist tendencies can be reinforced by other facets of life, like school tests. It’s not uncommon for students to think that people who get the best scores will fare better in life, which could be why school has seemingly become more stressful with each generation. In every phase of our lives, we’re actively being encouraged and rewarded for striving towards perfection, whether that means getting high enough S.A.T. scores or racking up a certain number of Instagram likes or followers. Millennials, it seems, have more metrics to measure success — and therefore failure — than their parents.
Of course, there’s no such thing as “perfect,” which means it’s nearly impossible to strive for perfection and feel anything but disappointment and self-doubt. The question is: Can millennials step out of this vicious cycle?
“Ultimately, we cannot escape this culture, but we can take steps to mitigate its influence,” Dr. Curran says.
Which brings us back to New Year’s resolutions and other ways we strive to be more perfect. It’s not like every attempt at improving yourself is detrimental to your mental health. So, how do we distinguish between self-betterment and harmful perfectionism?
The answer is complicated, and requires self-reflection. To begin with — and this is a big one — Dr. Curran encourages people to forget about being perfect, since that inevitably leads to self-defeat.
“Instead, diligence, flexibility, and perseverance are far better qualities … because they are rooted in excellence and involve a desire to perfect things, rather than oneself,” he says.
It’s also a good idea to check in with your work-life balance. If you find that you’re clocking late hours at the office but still feeling like you’re failing at everything, take a step back and see what happens when you give yourself some breathing room to catch up in other areas of your life (if this is possible with your job, that is). And while we’re at it, a once-in-a-while social media cleanse probably wouldn’t hurt, either.
The idea is to focus on your own accomplishments, rather than those of others, and to get a more holistic view of yourself and your achievements. It’s also a good idea to avoid situations where you’re more pressured to be perfect or have exceedingly high standards for yourself, Dr. Curran says.
We know — this is all easier said than done. But maybe you can start small. While you’re jotting down resolutions to be all you can be this year, make a note to try to be kinder to yourself, too.
This piece by Kimberly Truong was first seen in the ‘Refinery29’, 4 January 2018.

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