Perfectionism among students increases as pressure grows

Perfectionism hinders growth in students in and outside of academics.

Image used with permission from Google Commons

Perfectionism hinders growth in students in and outside of academics.

In 2019, psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill published “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time,” the study that found that between 1989 and 2016, scores for perfectionism on Frost’s Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale have surged among young people. The researchers found that more recent generations of college students scored significantly higher than earlier generations for each of three forms of perfectionism (self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed). The self-oriented perfectionism score increased by 10 percent, other-oriented increased by 16 percent and socially prescribed increased by 33 percent.

All three forms of perfectionism are maladaptive, meaning that they all interfere with an individual’s daily life and ability to adjust and participate in certain settings. However, unlike the other two, self-oriented perfectionism is largely fueled by intrinsic motivation and is characterized by the setting of excessively high standards for oneself. In contrast, other-oriented perfectionists hold others to excessively high standards and are highly critical of those who fail to meet their expectations, while socially prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold them to excessively high standards, that they must meet expectations to gain approval and that when they don’t, others judge them harshly. The last form is the most debilitating of the three and has had the greatest spike in recent years. This is the form that I’ve observed the most among students at this school.

The reason for this, the researchers believe, is the emergence of neoliberalism in the industrialized world and the rise in competitive individualism it has brought forth. Growth and development in the world are bound to increase competition between people, and when you throw into the mix the myth of meritocracy, perfectionism grows. The world is much more competitive now than it was when our parents were our age, and they know this. As competition grows, pressure on parents to raise successful children does too, which is why since the 1990s, the average time parents spend on childcare and their children’s education has significantly increased.

Anxiety and perfectionism are often learned behaviors that kids pick up on from their parents, and between 1986 and 2006, parenting practices associated with monitoring and surveillance almost doubled. Parental pressure to succeed is a huge part of socially prescribed perfectionism in teens, and of the factors students mentioned playing into their perfectionism, this one was the most prevalent.

“Being a perfectionist has caused me a lot of anxiety. It used to be if I got a bad grade, I’d have a breakdown. Grades don’t define me, but other people don’t seem to realize that. My parents care a lot about my grades, so if I got a bad grade and they found out about it, it would really stress me out. Usually I’d cry,” senior Akshara Raju said.

Along with parental pressure, Raju cited the academic competition at our school as fuel for students’ perfectionism: “Here, if you don’t take AP classes, you are definitely frowned upon. People have high expectations.”

Senior Ace Daniels said that when he decided to take an abbreviated schedule this year, “I was called lazy for not sticking to the status quo and messing up my mental health.”
“I’m not really a perfectionist anymore because I’m not in any classes that require me to be one. Kids with rigorous coursework at our school are perfectionists a lot of the time. They don’t do enough to focus on themselves and their mental health or self-care because they’re focusing on their grades more than anything,” Raju said.

According to the study, academic expectations are getting higher as achievement in school becomes equated more and more with success in adulthood. Current high school students in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. are subjected to more numerous and stringent standardized tests than previous generations because competition for admission to elite colleges has so drastically increased.

Along with pressure to succeed academically, the presence of social media in teens’ lives could also be playing into this rise in perfectionism. Comparison is the thief of joy, and social media acts as the perfect breeding ground for comparison and the desire to project success.

It’s possible that the increasing pressure students feel and the rise in perfectionism resulting from it have contributed to the surge in mental health issues young people have experienced in the last few decades. Perfectionism is closely tied to anxiety, depression, self-harm, OCD and eating disorders.

Senior Rory Kerns said that she’s observed perfectionism in her peers and she knows the effects it’s had on them: “Perfectionism makes you want to prioritize school over everything. Even yourself and your mental and physical wellbeing. It can take up all the space in someone’s mind and become the only thing that they focus on, which isn’t healthy.”

“It keeps you on track and your work is good quality. There are academic benefits but no mental benefits. You’ll get into a good college. You’ll achieve a lot, but you probably won’t be that happy,” Raju said.