Recognizing Perfectionism and its Consequences

Teenager staring morosely at his smartphone.

Curran and Hill found that rates of perfectionism have increased in college students since 1989, with the largest increase in “socially prescribed perfectionism” (32%). Socially prescribed perfectionism is the belief that others expect perfection out of the individual; that they aren’t allowed to struggle or make mistakes. The student may feel like they must hide, ignore or suppress negative emotions and appear outwardly happy. Unfortunately, perfectionism can act as a trigger for anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders.

In his book “The Feeling Good Handbook,” Dr. David Burns described that people suffering from a related type of perfectionism, called ‘emotional perfectionism’ may believe:

  • They should always be happy.
  • They should always be in control of their feelings.
  • “Normal” people don’t struggle with anxiety or depression.
  • Only “unstable” feel insecure, panicked, or depressed.
  • Negative emotions are dangerous and disastrous.

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Social media can reinforce these destructive beliefs. Thomas Curran, a lecturer in the Center for Motivation and Health Behavior Change at the University of Bath in England, said in the same New York Times article, “Millennials feel pressure to perfect themselves partly out of social media use that leads them to compare themselves to others.”

On social media, typically, people present the best versions of themselves and their lives. This skewed reality can reinforce the belief that it’s normal for other people to always be on vacation, in love and happy. Their children are always angels, adorable and healthy. Their homes look like they could appear in design magazines. On an intellectual level, most perfectionists know these perceptions are false, but anxiety and depression give way to unrealistic thinking and vice versa.

Constant exposure to images of perfect people and homes in traditional media also can trigger perfectionism-induced anxiety. Dr. Tah Ben-Shahar, author of “The Pursuit of Perfect” wrote, “We are constantly bombarded with perfection. Adonis gracing the cover of Men’s Health and the flawless Helen on the cover of Vogue; women and men on the larger-than-life screen, resolving their conflicts in two hours or less, delivering their perfect lines, making perfect love.” When measured against those images, many may feel their own lives need to be improved.

Other possible factors relating to perfectionism include a competitive culture and high expectations from family members and/or cultural ideals. For example, parents may put excessive pressure on their children to get accepted into selective colleges.

Studying Perfectionism and Other Risk Factors for Psychological Disorders in Psychology

Perfectionism is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems, but research into it is still developing and professionals’ opinions diverge on classifying and treating perfectionism. In River University’s online B.A. in Psychology, you’ll learn the latest on perfectionism and other risk factors for psychological disorders that will help guide your career in mental health. Our program takes place in a convenient online learning environment, which means you can pursue your education while maintaining your current work and personal schedule. Multiple term starts, a generous transfer credit policy, and competitive tuition rates are all designed to help you begin – and earn – your degree faster.