A Generation of Perfectionists


Staff Writer

When toddlers first learn how to walk, they fall at on their faces. In fact, most of them do so multiple times, and yet every time, their parents still believe that eventually they’ll be able to stand.

Now replace that falling toddler with a college student who doesn’t know how to file their taxes. At first, this may seem like a ridiculous comparison, since one is a child who’s still learning and the other is an adult who should know better. But this begs the question, why should a child’s failure be accepted as a natural part of the learning process, but not an adult’s?

A large part of this is the growing culture of perfectionism in young adults and teens. A recent study in the Psychological Bulletin in Dec. 28, 2017, found that perfectionism in American, Canadian and British college students has risen significantly since 1989. Just about everyone has heard about rising stress levels in high school and college students, but an attitude that leaves zero room for failure is also important to bring up.

Generally, perfectionism is a good thing that motivates people to try harder and not accept poor standards in their work or other’s. However, in today’s competitive and exposed society, it’s all too often pushed too far.

By the time most American students get to college, they have been exposed to a number of high- pressure standardized tests that will determine their futures, along with the stress of maintaining high grades while balancing school, work and extracurricular activities. When competing against other applicants to a university, “good” is hardly ever good enough.

An attitude of perfectionism has given many millennials the idea that any form of failure, even honest mistakes, is not an option.

This doesn’t only come from academics and pressure to do well in school.

“Parents…say they’re noticing how often their kids come away from Facebook and Instagram feeling depressed, ashamed and anxious, and how vulnerable they are to criticism and judgment, even from strangers, on their social media feeds,” The New York Times reports.

With social media, many young adults are constantly exposed to images of their peers only at their best, leading seemingly perfect lives. At the same time, they are expected to also put themselves in the spotlight, which can create the subconscious feeling of being judged. It isn’t uncommon for someone to delete a selfie from Instagram if it has not gotten enough likes because they feel that others didn’t like it.

In the study on perfectionism, researchers found that the form of perfectionism that has grown the most over the past 30 years – by 33 percent – is “socially prescribed” perfectionism, driven by thinking other people have high expectations of you. In contrast, “self-oriented” perfectionism, which comes from an individual’s own personal standards, has only risen by 10 percent.

This is not a healthy combination. Instead of being driven by personal high standards, there are an increasing number of millennials who are driven by perceived peer pressure.

This creates a number of potential mental health problems. Anxiety is the number one presenting concern among college students, according to the American Psychological Association, at 41.6 percent.

The New York Times quoted Katherine Dieckmann, a professor at Columbia University and mother, describing her daughter’s trouble finishing assignments.

“If she can’t finish it perfectly, she’d rather not do it,” Dieckmann said.

A good first step is to allow college students to make mistakes and admit a lack of knowledge without excessive criticism or mockery.

Most people in this age range are living on their own for the first time in their lives, and are still adjusting to adult life. If someone needs to call home to find out how to do their taxes, or get advice on how to do laundry, they should be able to do so without judgement.