Students’ quest for perfection may contribute to mental health crisis

Researchers say rates of perfectionism have gradually increased among post-secondary students over the last three decades, which may partly explain the rise in mental health problems.

A recent study analyzed generational differences in perfectionism among over 40,000 college students from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada between 1989 and 2016. The results showed that college students today have 33 per cent higher rates of socially-prescribed perfectionism, the perception that others demand perfection of them. Further, students are 16 per cent higher in other-oriented perfectionism, demanding perfection of others, and 10 per cent higher in self-oriented perfectionism, demanding perfection of oneself.

The authors note the most worrisome finding is that socially-prescribed perfectionism increased around twice as much as self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism, as it is most strongly associated with mental health problems.

“Socially-prescribed perfectionism is the most destructive form of perfectionism,” said Martin Smith, a Western PhD student who studies perfectionism. Smith explained that both self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism are correlated with thoughts of suicide, but only socially-prescribed perfectionism is correlated with an increased number of suicide attempts.

Smith added that both self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism can place people at risk for depression symptoms, suicide ideation, eating disorders, poor health, social disconnection, and interpersonal problems, with socially-prescribed perfectionism having the strongest effects.

The researchers attribute the rise in perfectionism to the cultural shift towardssocial competitiveness and individualistic, self-focused values in Western societies.

“Everything is about how things can benefit a person or the individual while neglecting communal goals,” said Smith. “People strive to make a lot of money so they can buy a nice house, not so they can take care of their family.”

Social media may also play a role through the increased push toward perfectionistic self-presentation through online platforms, explained Smith. People tend to only post positive things online, setting unrealistic expectations for others of how their lives should look like.

Another factor is the amount of pressure parents place on their children in today’s society, he added. Smith said some parents only accept and love their child when they rise to their high standards. As a result, the child’s self-worth becomes dependent on the idea of being perfect.

“Perfectionists often fly under the radar in that they want to maintain an air of perfection,” said Smith. “By trying to maintain a perfect image, they push other people away from them.”

Smith explained that, ultimately, the benefit of demanding perfection of oneself pales in comparison to the cost. He recommends reaching out to other people when life doesn’t go ‘perfectly’ and practicing some self-compassion.

“Perfection is intangible, fleeting and rare,” he said. “There’s no need for [perfectionists] to beat themselves up when they fail to do something perfectly because the world is imperfect.”


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