How perfectionism hurts students

Perfectionism can be a great trait. Perfectionists often stand out for their high standards, attention to detail, and tenacity.

But extreme perfectionism may lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation, explains Jessica Pryor, a psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in an interview with Olga Khazan for The Atlantic.  

And perfectionism among students is on the rise. Students today score higher on perfectionism tests than students in the 1990s or early 2000s, according to a study by psychologists Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill of York St. John University.

Their analysis suggests that each of the three different types of perfectionism—self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed—have gradually risen over the past three years, and current college students face the highest rates of any cohort.

Self-oriented perfectionism, the intrinsic drive to be perfect, rose by 10% between 1989 and 2016. Other-oriented perfectionism, holding others to impossibly high standards, rose by 16% during that same period. And socially prescribed perfectionism, the drive to meet high expectations others have of you, increased by 33%, likely due to the rise of both social media and standardized testing, according to psychologist Amy Bach.

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Curran and Hill warn readers not to interpret their findings as yet another weakness among millennials or kids these days, but argue instead that the psychology of today's students reflects the broader cultural and economic context into which they are born. They attribute the rise in perfectionism to several socio-economic factors, including social media and an increasingly competitive economy and culture.

"Over the last 50 years, communal interest and civic responsibility have been progressively eroded, replaced by a focus on self-interest and competition in a supposedly free and open marketplace," Curran and Hill wrote in an opinion piece earlier this year.

Curran and Hill add that the rise in perfectionism may be responsible for the explosion in rates of depression and anxiety among young people. For example, the American College Health Association found the rate of undergraduates reporting "overwhelming anxiety" increased from 50% in 2011 to 62% in 2016.

Clinical psychologist Michael Brustein has also noticed rising perfectionism in his patients, and he warns that maladaptive perfectionism can prevent individuals from accepting setbacks or moving on from failures.

Pryor adds that these individuals revisit failure constantly, thinking, "I need to make myself feel terrible so I don’t do this again." Then, they "rais[e] the expectation bar even higher, which increases the likelihood of defeat, which makes you self-critical, so you raise the bar higher, work even harder," she says. Not surprisingly, this tendency causes many perfectionists to fall behind on their work—as they're unable to complete assignments until they're perfect (Khazan, The Atlantic, 11/5).

In-depth: How to meet the escalating demand for mental health services


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