What Millennials Should Know about Perfectionism

Posted August 4, 2014

By Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener

Every generation is known for something. People who lived through World War II—the so-called “Greatest Generation” is famous for being tough and hard working. Their children, the “baby boomers,” are known for their social actions such as the Civil Rights movement. “Generation X,” the smallest generation, is known for being cynical, non-conforming and creative. Your generation, the “Millennials” are known for several things: wanting to work for meaning instead of money, environmental consciousness and—last but not least—perfectionism.

Young people ranging from the ages of, say, 10 to 25 have a greater leaning toward perfectionism, on average, than did the generations that came before. Young people are an achievement oriented group and doting parents have often instilled a strong message of “you are special” “you are able” and “you will be successful.” The drive for success is higher now than it was when I graduated from college (true story: my college graduation motto was “Do you want fries with that?”).

Unfortunately, perfection is hard to achieve and young people might experience more anxiety than did past generations. 1996 was the first year that university counseling centers began treating anxiety at the same rates as depression.

Understanding a bit about perfectionism might be helpful to you as you begin the new academic year. Psychologists who research the topic generally divide perfectionism into both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, research across cultures and with high school and college students shows that perfection is associated with greater hope, higher standards and better organization. Pretty cool, right? On the down side, perfectionism is associated with bodily complaints, increased depression and increased burn out. Bummer.

How can perfectionism be associated with both good and bad outcomes? It has to do with what I will refer to as “flexible perfectionism.” People who strive for perfection—those who have high standards—tend to benefit from that aim. On the other hand, people who react to imperfection by being self-critical are more likely to suffer. So, there’s the trick: the flexibility lies in striving for greatness but also accepting the fact that performance won’t always match that ideal. Making mistakes or occasionally performing below your ability is not something to beat yourself up about; it is something to learn from as you go forward.

Remember: You aren’t realistically expecting perfection, you are striving for greatness (which includes a little imperfection).

[Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.]