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  • I'm a bit of a perfectionist.

  • Now, how many times have you heard that one?

  • Over drinks, maybe, with friends, or perhaps with family at Thanksgiving.

  • It's everyone's favorite flaw,

  • it's that now quite common response

  • to the difficult, final question at job interviews:

  • \"My biggest weakness?

  • That's my perfectionism.\"

  • You see, for something that supposedly holds us back,

  • it's quite remarkable how many of us are quite happy to hold our hands up

  • and say we're perfectionists.

  • But there's an interesting and serious point

  • because our begrudging admiration for perfection is so pervasive

  • that we never really stop to question that concept in its own terms.

  • What does it say about us and our society

  • that there is a kind of celebration in perfection?

  • We tend to hold perfectionism up as an insignia of worth.

  • The emblem of the successful.

  • Yet, in my time studying perfectionism,

  • I've seen limited evidence that perfectionists are more successful.

  • Quite the contrary --

  • they feel discontented and dissatisfied

  • amid a lingering sense that they're never quite perfect enough.

  • We know from clinician case reports

  • that perfectionism conceals a host of psychological difficulties,

  • including things like depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia

  • and even suicide ideation.

  • And what's more worrying is that over the last 25 years,

  • we have seen perfectionism rise at an alarming rate.

  • And at the same time,

  • we have seen more mental illness among young people than ever before.

  • Rates of suicide in the US alone

  • increased by 25 percent across the last two decades.

  • And we're beginning to see similar trends emerge across Canada,

  • and in my home country, the United Kingdom.

  • Now, our research is suggesting

  • that perfectionism is rising as society is changing.

  • And a changed society reflects a changed sense of personal identity

  • and, with it, differences in the way in which young people interact

  • with each other and the world around them.

  • And there are some unique characteristics about our preeminent, market-based society

  • that include things like unrestricted choice

  • and personal freedom,

  • and these are characteristics that we feel are contributing

  • to almost epidemic levels of this problem.

  • So let me give you an example.

  • Young people today are more preoccupied with the attainment of the perfect life

  • and lifestyle.

  • In terms of their image, status and wealth.

  • Data from Pew show that young people

  • born in the US in the late 1980s

  • are 20 percent more likely to report being materially rich

  • as among their most important life goals,

  • relative to their parents and their grandparents.

  • Young people also borrow more heavily than did older generations,

  • and they spend a much greater proportion of their income on image goods

  • and status possessions.

  • These possessions, their lives and their lifestyles

  • are now displayed in vivid detail on the ubiquitous social media platforms

  • of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat.

  • In this new visual culture,

  • the appearance of perfection is far more important than the reality.

  • If one side of the modern landscape

  • that we have so lavishly furnished for young people

  • is this idea that there's a perfectible life

  • and that there's a perfectible lifestyle,

  • then the other is surely work.

  • Nothing is out of reach for those who want it badly enough.

  • Or so we're told.

  • This is the idea at the heart of the American dream.

  • Opportunity, meritocracy, the self-made person, hard work.

  • The notion that hard work always pays off.

  • And above all, the idea that we're captains of our own destiny.

  • These ideas, they connect our wealth, our status

  • and our image with our innate, personal value.

  • But it is, of course, complete fiction.

  • Because even if there were equality of opportunity,

  • the idea that we are captains of our own destiny

  • disguises a much darker reality for young people

  • that they are subject to an almost ongoing economic tribunal.

  • Metrics, rankings, lead tables

  • have emerged as the yardsticks for which merit can be quantified

  • and used to sort young people into schools, classes and colleges.

  • 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.

  • And it starts young.

  • Young people in America's big city high schools

  • take some 112 mandatory standardized tests

  • between prekindergarten and the end of 12th grade.

  • No wonder young people report a strong need to strive,

  • perform and achieve at the center of modern life.

  • They've been conditioned to define themselves

  • in the strict and narrow terms of grades, percentiles and lead tables.

  • This is a society that preys on their insecurities.

  • Insecurities about how they are performing

  • and how they are appearing to other people.

  • This is a society that amplifies their imperfections.

  • Every flaw, every unforeseen setback

  • increases a need to perform more perfectly next time, or else,

  • bluntly, you're a failure.

  • That feeling of being flawed and deficient is especially pervasive --

  • just talk to young people.

  • \"How should I look, how should I behave?\"

  • \"I should look like that model,

  • I should have as many followers as that Instagram influencer,

  • I must do better in school.\"

  • In my role as mentor to many young people,

  • I see these lived effects of perfectionism firsthand.

  • And one student sticks out in my mind very vividly.

  • John, not his real name, was ambitious,

  • hardworking and diligent

  • and on the surface, he was exceptionally high-achieving,

  • often getting first-class grades for his work.

  • Yet, no matter how well John achieved,

  • he always seemed to recast his successes as abject failures,

  • and in meetings with me,

  • he would talk openly about how he'd let himself and others down.

  • John's justification was quite simple:

  • How could he be a success

  • when he was trying so much harder than other people

  • just to attain the same outcomes?

  • See, John's perfectionism, his unrelenting work ethic,

  • was only serving to expose what he saw as his inner weakness

  • to himself and to others.

  • Cases like John's speak to the harmfulness of perfectionism

  • as a way of being in the world.

  • Contrary to popular belief,

  • perfectionism is never about perfecting things or perfecting tasks.

  • It's not about striving for excellence.

  • John's case highlights this vividly.

  • At its root, perfectionism is about perfecting the self.

  • Or, more precisely, perfecting an imperfect self.

  • And you can think about it like a mountain of achievement

  • that perfectionism leads us to imagine ourselves scaling.

  • And we think to ourselves, \"Once I've reached that summit,

  • then people will see I'm not flawed, and I'll be worth something.\"

  • But what perfectionism doesn't tell us

  • is that 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.

  • Now, we've known for decades and decades

  • that perfectionism contributes to a host of psychological problems,

  • but there was never a good way to measure it.

  • That was until the late 1980s

  • when two Canadians, Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett,

  • came along and developed a self-report measure of perfectionism.

  • So that's right, folks, you can measure this,

  • and it essentially captures three core elements of perfectionism.

  • 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.\"

  • Now, research shows that all three elements of perfectionism

  • associate with compromised mental health,

  • including things like heightened depression,

  • heightened anxiety and suicide ideation.

  • But, by far, the most problematic element of perfectionism

  • is socially prescribed perfectionism.

  • That sense that everyone expects me to be perfect.

  • This element of perfectionism

  • has a large correlation with serious mental illness.

  • And with today's emphasis on perfection at the forefront of my mind,

  • I was curious to see whether these elements of perfectionism were changing.

  • To date, research in this area is focused on immediate family relations,

  • but we wanted to look at it at a broader level.

  • So we took all of the data that had ever been collected

  • in the 27 years since Paul and Gordon developed that perfectionism measure,

  • and we isolated the data in college students.

  • This turned out to be more than 40,000 young people

  • from American, Canadian and British colleges,

  • and with so much data available, we looked to see if there was a trend.

  • And in all, it took us more than three years

  • to collate all of this information, crunch the numbers,

  • and write our report.

  • But it was worth it because our analysis uncovered something alarming.

  • All three elements of perfectionism have increased over time.

  • But socially prescribed perfectionism saw the largest increase, and by far.

  • In 1989,

  • just nine percent of young people report clinically relevant levels

  • of socially prescribed perfectionism.

  • Those are levels that we might typically see in clinical populations.

  • By 2017, that figure had doubled to 18 percent.

  • And by 2050, projections based on the models that we tested

  • indicate that almost one in three young people

  • will report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism.

  • Remember, this is the element of perfectionism

  • that has the largest correlation with serious mental illness,

  • and that's for good reason.

  • Socially prescribed perfectionists feel a unrelenting need

  • to meet the expectations of other people.

  • And even if they do meet yesterday's expectation of perfection,

  • they then raise the bar on themselves to an even higher degree

  • because these folks believe that the better they do,

  • the better that they're expected to do.

  • This breeds a profound sense of helplessness and, worse, hopelessness.

  • But is there hope?

  • Of course there's hope.

  • Perfectionists can and should hold on to certain things --

  • they are typically bright, ambitious, conscientious and hardworking.

  • And yes, treatment is complex.

  • But a little bit of self-compassion,

  • going easy on ourselves when things don't go well,

  • can turn those qualities into greater personal peace and success.

  • And then there's what we can do as caregivers.

  • Perfectionism develops in our formative years,

  • and so young people are more vulnerable.

  • Parents can help their children

  • by supporting them unconditionally when they've tried but failed.

  • And Mom and Dad can resist their understandable urge

  • in today's highly competitive society to helicopter-parent,

  • as a lot of anxiety is communicated

  • when parents take on their kids' successes and failures as their own.

  • But ultimately, our research raises important questions

  • about how we are structuring society

  • and whether our society's heavy emphasis on competition, evaluation and testing

  • is benefiting young people.

  • It's become commonplace for public figures to say

  • that young people just need a little bit more resilience

  • in the face of these new and unprecedented pressures.

  • But I believe that is us washing our hands of the core issue

  • because we have a shared responsibility

  • to create a society and a culture in which young people need less perfection

  • in the first place.

  • Let's not kid ourselves.

  • Creating that kind of world is an enormous challenge,

  • and for a generation of young people

  • that live their lives in the 24/7 spotlight

  • of metrics, lead tables and social media,

  • perfectionism is inevitable,

  • so long as they lack any purpose in life

  • greater than how they are appearing

  • or how they are performing to other people.

  • What can they do about it?

  • Every time they