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Posted 06/27/2022 in Category 1

Are we becoming more perfectionistic? And what is the challenge for young people?

Are we becoming more perfectionistic? And what is the challenge for young people?

We understand perfectionism as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. There are many dimensions to perfectionism, but combining high personal standards and an overly critical evaluation of oneself is a combination that serves to hurt rather than the heal and prosper. Social, cultural and economic changes over the past 40 years mean that our standards in school, sport and life have risen for scarce resources like a place on a professional football team, or a place at a high-ranking university. So what is going on with perfectionism, and how are we becoming more perfectionistic? We can be hard on ourselves with our self-evaluations (self-oriented perfectionism) and we might imagine others are judging us harshly (socially prescribed perfectionism) so we need to display perfection to secure their approval. 

When we are watching a football match on television, we might believe that everything looks perfect in passing, shooting, and scoring, but a realistic review of any game will tell you a different story. A player might feel she has no option but to perform perfectly or else confirm what the coach believes (e.g., she loses the ball; she gives possession away). We can also use these perfectionistic standards to judge others (other-oriented perfectionism). But what is happening to us culturally? Twenge and colleagues (2014) who have provided cross-temporal research showing various personality characteristics have changed over time among young people (e.g., neuroticism, narcissism, and extraversion). They reported young Americans were more confident, assertive, entitled and more miserable than ever before. So how are we becoming more perfectionistic and where is this going wrong? One possibility is that there is a mismatch between attachment needs (belonging and self-esteem) and the responses to those needs. Hewett and colleagues explain this phenomenon in child-parent relations but also the wider context like siblings, peers, and romantic partners. 

Imagine you see other people whom you view as important as judgemental and critical (perhaps they are so), you see yourself as fragile and fragmented, and the relations with yourself and others dredges up feelings of shame and unworthiness. How would you tidy up this image of yourself? You might try to repair and compensate for this damaged self-worth by gaining the approval of others. Put yourself in some tennis shoes or golf shoes – you might view sport as a potential outlet for repair. Gaining the approval of significant others happens through good (or perfect) performances or pursing a perfect swing, perhaps? Our self-worth, other people, sport, and other factors combine to form a storm that seems so far away from hitting a ball over a net or hitting a drive on a golf course. There is little doubt that we have seen greater neoliberalism and competitive individualism, the most capable (apparently) to rise to the top and more parents worrying and controlling.

In Curran and Hill’s study among American, Canadian and British college students who completed the multidimensional perfectionism scale between 1989 and 2016 showed that perfection in all its facets was rising regardless of gender or difference among the counties. In short, young people feel others are more demanding of them, other people, and themselves. Now is the time to stop, review and help young people to make sense of the world in which they find themselves. 


Curran, H. (2019). Perfectionism Is Increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138

Twenge, J. M. (2014). Generation me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled and more miserable than ever before (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Atria.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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