When he was in eighth grade, Benjamin Cherkasky quit the swim team. While he loved swimming, he wasn’t winning every time, and he felt he should.
“I’m not Michael Phelps at swimming, so why am I even on the team?” he remembers thinking.
Cherkasky, who became a therapist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute in Evanston, Ill., realized years later what had happened: His perfectionism was creating unrealistic standards, and, being unable to meet them, he quit.
The pattern continued throughout college and “caused real suffering and real anxiety,” said Cherkasky, who now researches perfectionism. He and other therapists and psychologists now know that perfectionism can breed anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. They also know that so many young people are suffering from the ills of perfectionism that they are beginning to issue warnings about it.
“I would argue that millennials, more than any other generation in American society, are receiving very strong explicit messages around achieving,” said Jessica Rohlfing Pryor, a Family Institute staff psychologist. “There’s an absence of messaging that trying your hardest is still OK.”
This January, the American Psychological Association reported that recent generations of college students have reported higher levels of perfectionism than earlier generations.
This “irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others” is taking a toll on young people’s mental health, according to the association’s research, which analyzed data from more than 40,000 American, Canadian and British college students.
(People affected could be in the millennial generation and Gen Z. Pryor noted that the data, which was collected from more than 200 studies, may not have used the same period of years to define the groups.)
The analysis showed that perfectionism is particularly prevalent in undergraduate and graduate students.
Three types of perfectionism were measured: an irrational personal desire to be perfect, perceiving excessive expectations from others, and placing unrealistic standards on others.
Recent generations of college students have reported significantly higher scores for each of these types of perfectionism than earlier generations, the researchers found.
Social media also add pressure, along with the increased drive to earn money and set lofty career goals. Chronic procrastination and elaborate to-do lists can be signs of perfectionism — and potentially darker issues.
Colleges taking note
In college, Cherkasky’s perfectionism led him to feel he should be smart enough to understand his textbooks without any instruction, and to have mastered whatever he was learning.
“It makes you feel kind of crazy,” he said. “I felt like I should know every fact about the human brain without even going to class.”
This type of thinking can lead to putting in less effort, which can create more anxiety as people fall behind, he noted.
“It causes suffering, and it causes people to kind of be isolated, and causes people to detach from their work, from their school, from other people,” he said. “And so these are all perfect nutrients for anxiety to grow.”
Some schools are acknowledging the issue and trying to teach students to not only honor their drive but also to accept failure.
Northwestern recently held a symposium on perfectionism. Brown University includes perfectionism in its counseling and psychological services, asking students if they ever feel that what they accomplish isn’t good enough, or that they must give more than 100 percent to not be considered a failure. The University of Texas and Harvard University are working to define the difference between a perfectionist and a “healthy striver.”
Rohlfing Pryor noted that Family Institute research shows perfectionists are less likely than peers to seek out resources. It’s key that students see this as something they can get help with, she said, sooner rather than later.
“They end up going [to therapy] when things are much rougher than they could have been,” she said.