Thomas Curran is a social psychologist who has been studying the effects of perfectionism in American, Canadian and British students for years. And the clinical case reports that he is collecting are rather alarming. Among young people, perfectionism is reaching the level of a true and proper social epidemic, exposing them to a host of psychological difficulties, including things like depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and even suicidal ideas.
What is happening? According to Curran, this phenomenon is highly dependent on how we have been educated and, especially, how we educate our children. Not surprisingly, “education is the first arena where measurement is so publicly played out and where metrics are being used as a tool to improve standards and performance”. However, outside our schools, things are not going any better. Far from it.
“On the ubiquitous social media platforms of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and in this new in the visual culture in which we are immersed, the appearance of perfection is far more important than the reality”. These social phenomena are a direct emanation of our most radical belief systems. We have taken the idea at the heart of the American dream: nothing is out of reach for those who want it badly enough. The notion that hard work always pays off. And above all, the idea that we’re captains of our own destiny.
All these convictions – if made absolute – connect our wealth, our status and our image with our innate, personal value. And they push us to incessantly strive to adapt ourselves to models that are, very often, simply unattainable.
But how do you recognize perfectionism? Curran has divided it into three types.
The first is self-oriented perfectionism, the irrational desire to be perfect: “I strive to be as perfect as I can be.”
The second is socially-prescribed perfectionism, the sense that the social environment is excessively demanding: “I feel that others are too demanding of me.”
And the third is other-oriented perfectionism, the imposition of unrealistic standards on other people: “If I ask somebody to do something, I expect it to be done perfectly.”
In all these cases, what perfectionism doesn’t tell us is that it leaves us in an endless cycle of dependency:
“Soon after reaching that summit, we will be called down again to the fresh lowlands of insecurity and shame, just to try and scale that peak again. This is the cycle of self-defeat. In the pursuit of unattainable perfection, a perfectionist just cannot step off. And it’s why it’s so difficult to treat.”.
However, if this is how things are, is there hope? Of course there is, says Curran. Parents and adults can help their children by supporting them unconditionally when they’ve tried but failed, without taking on their kids’ successes and failures as their own.
And maybe it is time for everyone to start to look at things from a more human perspective.
“When are we going to appreciate that there is something fundamentally inhuman about limitless perfection? No one is flawless. If we want to help our young people escape the trap of perfectionism, then we will teach them that in a chaotic world, life will often defeat us, but that’s OK”.
We have to invite our young people to celebrate the joys and beauties of imperfection as a normal and natural part of everyday living and love, which in any case are unpredictable and will never be under our complete control.