I started my first full-time reporter job four years ago. I accepted the job greedily, wanting to escape freelancing and enter the world of salaries, holidays, and sick pay. For the first time since leaving university, I was about to earn a decent living. I was on the ladder.
I was on a probation period for the first few months, pretty standard practice for employers. But in my head, it was a test. I worked flat out in the hope I’d be kept on. I berated myself for little mistakes. When I did well, I wanted to do better. I became increasingly stressed and ended up with insomnia.
I’d always been taught to work hard, get good grades, and try to strive for the best. The problem is, the best never felt good enough. Despite getting good feedback from my bosses, I never felt satisfied enough to accept it—and I always felt I could do more to improve. For a while, I thought the problem was me. But as new research shows, shifts in societal expectations have a lot more to do with my feeling this pressure.
Indeed, more young people than ever before are pushing themselves to be perfect. On the surface, this drive looks internal, the product of personality and family pressures—as if we were all born as high-achieving Type A personalities. But actually, researchers are seeing how the forces of our materialistic culture—and emphasis on the market economy—are shaping young people today.
Obsessed with perfection
A study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin this month analyzed the data of more than 40,000 British, US and Canadian college students between the 1980s and 2016. It found today’s students, compared to prior generations, are harder on themselves, more demanding of others, and report higher levels of social pressure to be perfect.
There’s nothing wrong with having high standards, but seeking perfection is damaging. It breeds a desire to be flawless that verges on obsession, and leads us to be overly critical of ourselves and others, giving rise to intense pressure that can take its toll on mental health. A study by researchers at the University of Western Ontario in 2017 even suggested the pressure to be perfect is a contributing factor to people prone to suicide ideation and attempts.
So why are we sacrificing our mental wellbeing to seek the unattainable? Study authors Thomas Curran, a social psychologist from the University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, a professor of sports psychology at York St. John University, propose cultural shifts—namely the rise of neoliberalism—are to blame.
Since the 1970s, economies in the UK, US, and Canada have embraced neoliberalism, an ideology commonly used to refer to an economic system in which the “free” market is extended to every crevice of our public and personal lives. It’s a merit-based system that rewards high grades, good degrees, good jobs, but punishes a lack of competitiveness by removing safeguards against failure.
Young people are under pressure to perform in this ultra-competitive, dog-eat-dog environment. Workers are disposable with fewer protections, so they’re required to try to be the best of the best. The effects of this clearly made their mark on me. When I first started working, I was in a perpetual state of insecurity and anxiety, worried that even a small mistake could leave me out of a job.
The problem is, this all starts when we’re young. As Storr sums up in his book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us: “Neoliberalism beams at us from many corners of our culture and we absorb it back into ourselves like radiation.” In the UK, children as young as four are subjected to standardized testing because it provides us with metrics to rank kids, so we know which are performing better and who may go on to get the top grades. It’s a similar situation in the US, with the average student in big-city public schools taking around 112 tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade.
So not only is the pressure to perform our best baked into our way of working, but what constitutes the “best” is also constantly shifting—meaning young people are forced to work harder to achieve the top grades. In 2010, UK schools introduced a new grade of A* to identify the brightest 18-year-olds at A-level.
This hyper-competitive environment not only negatively affects our education and work, but all aspects of our lives. Recognizing where this drive stems from —and taking small steps to address it—offers young people the chance to escape the pull to be perfect, and build a healthier, more meaningful relationship with work and life.
“Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be,” writes journalist Will Storr, “you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”
It’s no secret that the pressure young people experience to achieve perfection can be detrimental to their wellbeing, but it can also impact people professionally. Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a reader in social and health psychology at the University of Sheffield, conducted a study which linked perfectionism to procrastination.
“If you are worried about reaching standards to please others, and ruminating about how you’ll never get there and never be good enough, always focusing on failures rather than successes, then you tend to procrastinate,” she explains. “When you feel that anxious or worried or depressed, it eats away at your resources, your energy, to actually work towards the goals.”
If perfectionism is ingrained in our lives, how can we turn it into something we can change about ourselves?
The first step is to recognize the way society has influenced our push to be perfect.
“It puts perfectionism within a larger social context—and then it makes you question, am I really doing this for myself?” Dr. Sirois says.
A good way for young people and students to tackle perfectionism is to question whether what you are trying to strive for is what you really want, or if there are other influences at play.
“If you are doing things because you think that is what other people expect of you, or if you strive for a standard that is society’s standard and not your own, it’s something you think your parents or peers expect of you, that kind of striving is unhealthy,” Dr Sirios says. “Even if you set your own standards for your own performance or own goals, you have to say, are these really my own goals, are am I doing this to impress somebody else or to fit in or be liked by others?”
The next is to use that realization to make a change. Dr Sirios suggests setting realistic ambitions is crucial: “Unrealistic goals mean they may not be your actual goals. When we base goals on our own capabilities—that’s not perfectionism, that’s striving for excellence, or being conscientious,” she says.
Finally, seeing failure as a part of life is important. For me, this meant accepting mistakes happen, like failing to record an interview and having to call back to do it all over again. Embarrassing, yes—but not the end of the world.
It’s when your goals are the result of pressure from family, peers or society; or unrealistic and out of reach, that failure feels catastrophic. Instead, if you are really trying to achieve something for yourself, then mark your successes,” Dr. Sirios says.
“If you are doing something for your own self-satisfaction, then allow yourself to be satisfied afterwards.” And allowing myself to feel good about something I’ve done well, even if not to perfection, sounds, well, perfect.