I’d hazard a guess that one out of every three interview respondents uses “I’m just too much of a perfectionist” as the weakness to talk about in interviews–as if it were an okay thing to slide by with. (Although I guess it’s better than my old go-to response of “I have chronic awesomeness.”)
Problem is, perfectionism is more harmful than you think, and its existence as a millennial standard-issue issue is rising at an alarming rate, as a psychology study 27 years in the making now reveals.
First, the damage. Perfectionism has been linked to depression, anorexia, high blood pressure, and even early death.
Then there’s the collateral damage. Perfectionists tend to judge and criticize not only themselves but everyone else. The more they see their own flaws in others, the more they pick, as a sort of displacement mechanism. The constant criticism and judging distances the perfectionist from others, further exacerbating their “I must not be good enough” belief.
And perfectionists are often unaware of the impact this corrosive behavior has on others.
Unfortunately, perfectionism in all forms is on the rise among our youth, as the study indicates:
- Socially prescribed perfectionism (society is judging you harshly and perfection is required for approval) has increased by a whopping 32 percent.
- Others-oriented perfectionism (peers are imposing more demanding and unrealistic standards) has increased 16 percent.
- Self-oriented perfectionism (demanding higher expectations of oneself and attaching more importance to perfection) has increased a troubling 10 percent.
What’s causing this alarming trend?
1. A decreasing sense of a confident self.
The study revealed a toxic stew that’s becoming all too prevalent: an increasing sense of competitiveness, lower self-esteem, and a fear of social evaluation–characterized by a focus on deficiencies and fear of criticism and failure.
This is exacerbated by increased exposure to social media where we continually compare our blooper reel to everyone else’s highlight reel.
2. Rising educational expectations and demands placed on children.
Fierce competition for admission into the best schools has subjected today’s youth to more and increasingly stringent standardized tests. As the study states, “The bar of society’s expectations has risen so high that it becomes unattainable to the majority.”
3. Increasingly anxious and controlling parental styles.
More than ever, the monetary and social success of our children is seen as an expression of our parental success. Such pressure has several consequences for parental behavior as the study indicates:
“Parents are spending far more time with children on their academic activities and far less time on leisure (a phenomenon known as the ‘rug-rat race’), and they have an increasingly anxious/controlling parental style. Parents pass their own achievement anxieties onto their children via excessive involvement in their child’s activities or emotions (child reported levels of parental monitoring or surveillance activities has doubled).
So how to mold a successful, yet non-perfectionist child?
1. Depressurize your environment.
The study suggests better balancing involvement in a child’s academics with participating in fun activities with him/her. The study also states, “Don’t hold excessive expectations of perfection as criteria for success” or you’ll pass the habit along.
As much as my wife and I could get over-involved in our daughter’s homework, we employ and encourage an “upon request” approach, while simultaneously insisting on family fun time.
2. Help them focus on authenticity, not approval.
When we seek approval we’re seeking external validation (an empty victory at best and elusive and confidence eroding at worst). Help your children fall in love with their internal qualities, not external accomplishments in comparison to others. Instead, encourage them to consider: “Did I accomplish what I set out to do?” (regardless of who else did what) and “Am I becoming a better version of myself?”
Similarly, delve into why the youth wants something to be perfect. It’s often their need for total approval or the desire to meet their own ludicrous standards–something often unattainable and poisonous compared to pursuing the authentic self (which yields true self-confidence).
When our daughter is dragging out an art project, trying to get it juuuust right, we challenge her on the true reason behind why it must be so perfect. We tell her it’s more about expressing herself (efficiently) then seeking external validation through her art. Is she seeking appreciation? Cool. Seeking approval? Not so much.
3. Encourage regular breaks from social media.
Everyone knows that a teenagers device may as well be a medical device for as much as they’re attached to it. Fostering periodic respites from social media and the comparisons it drives allows children to reorient themselves to a less judgmental world. By the way, it’s darn good advice for you too (and no, my wife and I aren’t so hot at this).
You won’t get it perfect in helping your child avoid perfectionism–but that isn’t the criteria now, is it?
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This article by Scott Mautz also appeared on Inc.com. To read more Inc. articles by Scott Mautz, click here.
Larry Ackerman says
Scott, many thanks for sharing this article. I feel for these kids who are under such constant pressure to be “perfect” — and who never will be. I call it “The Lexus Syndrome:” the pursuit of perfection (as the car company boasts)! Children weren’t made to be perfect and they aren’t all the same. They have unique identities that define them and which need to be cultivated along with their ability to solve trigonometry problems, interpret literature and conduct successful science experiments. Frankly, it takes a mighty self-possessed, self-confident parent to recognize this reality. With this in mind, I’d like to double down on your points by adding a short piece of my own. It is entitled Parenting through Identity and it can be accessed here: http://www.larryackerman.com/images/uploads/Parenting_Through_Identity.pdf. The main idea? To honor the individual inside the child. Amen.
Scott Mautz says
Love it Larry! Great points and thanks for sharing the “Parenting Through Identity” pdf!
Henry Kirkham says
Love the article ! Now after raising kids, having grandchildren and now working with middle schoolers the study is spot on.
Scott Mautz, author of Make It Matter says
Thanks so much Henry! Glad your experience further validates this!