You’d think that having Baby Boomers as parents – the original “Me” generation, the hippies, the counter-culturists – would mean my parents would be mellow, go-with-the-flow types. Nope. Something happened when they boxed up their bell bottoms and platform shoes, and traded their peace sign for a wagging, “you’re-in-trouble” finger. I’m a Millennial who grew up in a strict household with restrictively high standards. If I got a B in my report card or strayed from my size 5 hourglass figure, I was punished. This lead to the development of my own complexes, smudging any sense of accomplishment I may feel with my stubby, perfectionistic fingers.
Watching my 1-year-old nephew grow up is witnessing a life lesson in action. Babies are born with the insight that everything they do and everything about them is wondrous. Sticking your foot in your mouth is an accomplishment, not cringe-worthy. When I told my nephew not to throw his food on the perfectly spotless floor, he looked me straight in the eye, grabbed his perfectly diced sweet potato, and proceeded to drop it on the floor.
“Say it’s wrong,” his look of defiance seemed to say. “Because I think it’s totally awesome to make a mess.”
At some point, something does go wrong. Many of us learn to associate success with perfection and failure with imperfection. If we don’t fit into what is considered the ideal, we believe we are flawed, and in extreme cases, broken beyond repair.
When we analyzed data from 1,324 people who took our Perfectionism Test, we divided the sample into generations. Here’s how they break down:
We then assessed the degree to which each generation feels pressured – from family, employers, society, or themselves – to be perfect. Here’s what the stats revealed:
It seems that Centennials and Millennials have developed the belief that love, respect, and acceptance are contingent upon how close they are to perfection in every way. In my opinion, this pressure to be perfect, although often self-imposed, could originate from pressure from parents, teachers, friends, or the media. How many times in a day are we inundated with the message that we are hopelessly flawed if we don’t look, smell or dress in a specific way, get good grades, get into a good school, make a lot of money, get married, etc.? Lots.
Those who feel that they not good enough or not close enough to this ideal believe that they are flawed. Once this belief is internalized, it results in self-esteem issues, self-image problems, the tendency to set impossible standards, and harsh self-criticism when these standards are not met. This in turn could lead to mental health issues, or compel a person to adopt extreme measures to reach these impossible standards, like starving themselves in order to achieve a “perfect” body. If that doesn’t scare you enough, research has also shown that in some cases, extreme perfectionism can lead to self-harm and increase suicide risk (Chester, Merwin, & DeWall, 2015; Claes, Soenens, Vansteenkiste, & Vandereycken, 2012; Flett, Hewitt, & Heisel, 2014) . Some people will intentionally hurt themselves, even fatally, to relieve the pressure that the hopeless pursuit of perfection entails.
Fellow perfectionists, let me make this as clear as possible: Perfectionism is not a strength. By all means, do your absolute best in everything you take on, but know that your best is more than good enough. And mistakes are awesome. They’re like road signs that tell you whether you’re going in the right direction or need to change course, maybe even ask for directions. Moreover, you don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations of who you should be or what you should look like. Most importantly, realize that you are not broken. You are the perfect version of a wonderful, vulnerable, emotional human being.
Chester, D. S., Merwin, L. M. and DeWall, C. N. (2015), Maladaptive perfectionism’s link to aggression and self-harm: Emotion regulation as a mechanism. Aggressive Behavior, 41(5), 443–454.
Claes, L., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., & Vandereycken, W. (2012). The scars of the inner critic: perfectionism and nonsuicidal self-injury in eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review, 20(3), 196-202.
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). The Destructiveness of Perfectionism Revisited: Implications for the Assessment of Suicide Risk and the Prevention of Suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156-172.