According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 16.1 million adults in the US experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2014. Depression is also the leading cause of disability in the US among people between the ages of 15 and 44.1
While we know it can have many causes, there’s one characteristic that has been recently linked to depression, and it’s not what you’d think.
A new study points to a surprising connection between rising perfectionism in our culture and rising mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. The study, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, suggests that young people are more obsessed with perfection than previous generations. Between 1989 and 2016, perfectionism has continued to rapidly increase in the US, with rates that parallel increased cases of depression and anxiety.2
What Is Perfectionism?
The authors of the study define perfectionism broadly as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”2 Within this broader definition they distinguish three subcategories:
- Self-oriented perfectionism – This aspect of perfectionism is directed inward, causing people to attach irrational importance to perfection and have unrealistic expectations for themselves and harsh self-evaluations.
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism – This is perfectionism that is perceived to come from others, in which people believe their social context is overly demanding, that they are being judged harshly by others and that they must seem perfect to gain approval.
- Other–oriented perfectionism – This aspect of perfectionism is directed toward others — the tendency to impose unrealistic standards on people around them and evaluate others critically.2
Why the Rise in Perfectionism?
While the study focused on younger generations, the rise in perfectionism among this group highlights larger cultural shifts that affect society as a whole. The study presents three reasons for the rise in perfectionism:
- Neoliberalism – Researchers cite the rise of this revived form of liberalism as one factor leading to an increasingly perfectionistic culture. Neoliberalism endorses capitalist principles and unconstrained competition between self-interested individuals. This focus on competitive individualism has pushed aside the previous emphasis on collectivism, contributing to a more self-focused culture that values personal achievement over community connectivity. People have become more preoccupied with competition and achievement of social standing, particularly as regards to material possessions.
- Meritocracy – Along with the rise of neoliberalism has come its close relative, meritocracy. This is the idea that the perfect life, which is defined by achievement, wealth and social status, is attainable by anyone as long as they try hard enough. Essentially, you make your own way in the world, and you receive your due rewards for your efforts and achievements. This concept treats people the way we treat commodities — they are valued based off of their perceived contribution to society. This has contributed to changes in the way education is viewed, with increasing pressure on students to compete against their peers, to attend better and more elite colleges, and to gain postgraduate degrees in order to earn more money. The bar has effectively been raised too high for the majority of people to even see it, let alone reach it.
- Parental perfectionism – The expectation that everyone should perfect themselves by striving to reach unattainable heights is doubly burdensome for parents. Not only do they feel the need to perfect themselves, but they are responsible for the successes and failures of their children as well. This phenomenon actually has a name: child-contingent self-esteem. Psychologists have found parental expectations have risen to alarming heights – parents are spending more time on schoolwork and less time on leisure activities with children, and are becoming increasingly anxious and controlling. Of course, it’s not surprising that these tendencies are imparted from one generation to the next — perfectionist parents raise children who are afraid to fail.2
In a Yahoo article discussing the study, clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg cites social media as another contributing factor to perfectionism. On social media, people’s lives are constantly on display – the pressure to make life look presentable for others is magnified by the need to promote a perfect online image.3 If it wasn’t enough for parents and teachers to have unrealistic expectations, the world of social media can make it seem like everyone is watching you, expecting you to be perfect but waiting for you to fail.
How Does This Relate to Depression?
So how does this rise in perfectionism in our culture correlate with the rise in rates of depression? According to the American Psychological Association study, research has shown that perfectionism, especially socially-prescribed perfectionism, is positively related to a range of psychological disorders including depression and anxiety. Perfectionists have an excessive need for others’ approval, but tend to feel socially disconnected, which makes them susceptible to psychological turmoil.2
In another article on the American Psychological Association website, Paul Hewitt, PhD, explains that socially-prescribed perfectionism, the feeling that people will only value you if you’re perfect, is so detrimental to mental health because it combines pressure with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Many people who struggle with this feel like the better they do, the better they’re expected to do. Other-oriented perfectionism, the tendency to demand perfection from others, can be damaging to intimate relationships and cause isolation and alienation, which are risk factors for depression.4
Dr. Hewitt, who has researched perfectionism for 20 years and frequently treats perfectionists as a practicing psychologist, prefers to work with patients on the underlying desires behind perfectionism – the need to be accepted and cared for. He believes these interpersonal needs are the precursors to perfectionist tendencies.4 Such desires are obviously not problematic in themselves – it’s the need to be perfect in order to gain them that creates issues.
The unfortunate reality painted by this study is that our culture is a perfectionistic culture, but it’s up to us as individuals to fight against the tide, to learn to accept ourselves and others, imperfect as we are. After all, our mental and emotional health depends on it.
1 “Facts and Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed January 30, 2018.
1 Curran, Thomas and Andrew P. Hill, Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, December 28, 2017.
1 Parker, Maggie. “The ‘irrational desire’ driving millennials and Gen Z into depression.” Yahoo! News, January 3, 2018.
1 Benson, Etienne. “The many faces of perfectionism.” American Psychological Association, November 2003.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.