Supervised by: Ellen Froustis MA, MSc. Ellen Froustis is a DPhil. Education candidate at the University of Oxford. She has a Master’s of Education-Special Emphasis School Counselling and a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. As the founder and director of EIMAI, and regional director of Peace Jam Greece, Ellen provides youth leadership development programs, bringing together youth with Nobel Peace Laureates and university students to create positive change in themselves and their communities. Ellen has served as General Secretary of the Greek Adlerian Psychological Association (2012-2016) and Vice President of Habitat for Humanity, Greater Athens (2006-2010). Ellen’s work with youth and schools has been awarded by the Near East Council of Overseas Schools, The Loukoumi Make A Difference Foundation, The Noble Peace Laureate’s Billion Acts of Peace and Character.Org for best practices in character education.
The demands of today’s world have placed great pressure on young people to achieve at high levels in school, be active in their community, be distinguished in their activities and develop competitive profiles to enter top universities. Many of these students identify with perfectionism. A recent study showed that perfectionism rates in college students are greater today than in the last 30 years (Curran and Hill, 2019). A general understanding of perfectionism is that it is “the practice of demanding of oneself or others a higher quality of performance than is required by the situation” (Hollender, 1965, p. 94). Today it is recognized that it is a multidimensional dispositional trait with both adaptive and maladaptive characteristics. The aim of this study was to explore the prevalence of perfectionism and its impact on achievement and well-being from a snowball sample of young people, aged 16-25 years old, recruited by international students participating in the Oxford Scholastica’s Academy Psychology Internship. Findings showed that 85.4% of participants identified having perfectionist traits that were primarily focused on academic achievement in relation to other aspects of their lives and experienced stress that affected their physical and mental health and well-being. Participants reported both positive and negative outcomes as a result of their perfectionism. Meeting parental and teacher expectations was often a source of distress, but they attributed their striving for perfection to their own achievement aspirations.
The demands of today’s world have placed great pressure on young people to achieve at high levels in school, be active in their community, be distinguished in their activities and develop competitive profiles for entry to top universities. Despite the level of competency in high achieving youth, the excessive pressure to be perfect has seen a rise in their mental and physical ill health. Around 25–30% of adolescents are negatively impacted by perfectionism (Flett et al., 2016). A meta-analysis of 284 studies found that perfectionism was at the root of insomnia, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, social phobia, self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder among others (Limberg, Watson and Egan, 2016). A recent study showed that perfectionism rates in college students are greater today than in the last 30 years (Curran and Hill, 2019). Perfectionism is a multidimensional dispositional trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990; Hewitt & Flett, 1991; Slaney, Rice, Mobley, Trippi, & Ashby, 2001). There are several known forms of perfectionism with personal and social dimensions: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism (Hewitt and Flett , 1991). These three dimensions vary in attitudes, motivations and behavior – more importantly, they vary in relation to the perfectionists’ beliefs. Not all forms of perfectionism are negative or have a self-critical component. Positive perfectionism is considered “healthy” or “normal” when one strives to improve to reach personal aspirations without suffering when they fail (Flett and Hewitt, 2006). This research paper, investigated by Oxford Scholastica Psychology Interns, explores the prevalence of perfectionism in young people aged 16-25 years old and how it impacts their achievement and well-being.
II. Literature Review
2.1 Understanding Perfectionism
The study of perfectionism is most often approached as a trait or personal disposition (Saboonchi and Lundh, 1999). Early researchers viewed perfectionism as pathological (Burns, 1980; Pacht, 1984), however breakthrough research by Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate (1990) diversified this viewpoint, identifying positive and negative aspects of perfectionism within two central dimensions of the areas. The first dimension, viewed as a dominant perfectionist trait, is having concern over mistakes and a tendency to set high personal standards. The second dimension identified was having a sense of doubt about one’s actions and an over-emphasis on one’s preciseness and organization. The role of actual and perceived parental expectations was explored to understand its origins. Hewitt & Flett (1991) then developed a model of perfectionism in relation of self to others with three orientations: Self-Oriented Perfectionism (self-imposed perfectionism) Other-Oriented Perfectionism (imposing perfectionism on others), and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism (perceived expectations of perfectionism from others to self).
Within the two central dimensions, Frost et al. (1990) categorized perfectionism into six attitudinal aspects: personal standards, concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, parental expectations, parental criticism, and organization. ‘Personal Standards’ refers to a tendency to set excessively high goals, and is a common motif across most early theoretical descriptions of perfectionism (Hamachek, 1978; Hollender, 1965). However, Frost et al. (1990) added nuance to these descriptions by arguing that personal standards are only perfectionistic if coupled with overly critical evaluations of the self that involve ‘concern over mistakes and doubts about actions,’ two other proposed aspects of perfectionism. Similarly, Frost et al. (1990) argued that two other aspects – parental criticism and parental expectations – are crucial to attributing a cause to the development of perfectionism, and understanding that “for the perfectionist, self-evaluations of performance are inextricably tied to assumptions about parental expectations of approval or disappointment” (Frost et al., 1990; p. 451). The final aspect, attributed to Hollender’s (1965) view that perfectionists are ‘fussy’, Frost et al. (1990) proposed a sixth aspect, labeled ‘organization,’ that involves an over-emphasis on order and neatness.
While various studies support this model, thereby strengthening its reliability and validity (Gavino et al., 2019; Parker & Adkins, 1995), these studies suggest additional details and conditions to Frost et al.’s original 1990 model. Specifically, parental expectations and parental criticism. Instead of acting as core aspects of perfectionism, they are developmental antecedents of perfectionism (Damian et al., 2013). Likewise, as implied by Frost (1990), ‘organization’ is not a principal aspect of perfectionism, rather a correlate of it – a perfectionist trait or attitude, as opposed to a cause.
Hewitt & Flett (1991) further expanded the study of perfectionism by developing a relational model of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism refers to a belief that striving for perfection and being perfect are crucial. The objective of this dimension is to achieve perfection whilst avoiding failure, regardless of the costs. Consequently, individuals of this dimension tend to be extremely self-critical, evaluating themselves against an unattainable standard of perfection created by their exceedingly high personal standards. A less critical form, considered by some to be under this domain, is personal standards where people strive for excellence in reaching their aspirations because it has personal value to them but are more resilient when it comes to failure. This differentiates it from other aspects of perfectionism because it is motivated by high conscientiousness defined by self-discipline, organization, and striving for achievement (Flett & Hewitt, 2006). Some researchers argue that high conscientiousness is not perfectionism but rather a personality trait (Smith et al, 2020). In contrast, socially prescribed perfectionism embodies a belief that striving for perfection and being perfect are important to others. Socially prescribed perfectionists believe that others have high standards of them (thus expect them to be perfect) and that others will be highly critical of them if they fail to meet these expectations. It is important to acknowledge that both forms of perfectionism have an element of criticism directed at oneself, even though the perceived expectation in this dimension comes from others. Alternatively, other-oriented perfectionism assumes a belief that others should strive for perfection and be perfect. This dimension of perfectionists expects others to be perfect, and are highly critical of others who fail to meet these expectations. Therefore, only self-oriented perfectionists and socially prescribed perfectionists are self-critical; other-oriented perfectionists are critical of others (Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 2004).
2.2 Adaptive versus Maladaptive Perfectionism
Distinguishing between healthy or unhealthy perfection, or adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism has been a point of debate between researchers. A general understanding of perfectionism is that it is “the practice of demanding of oneself or others a higher quality of performance than is required by the situation” (Hollender, 1965, p. 94), raising questions as to whether perfectionism can have positive outcomes. Greenspon (2000) noted that when perfectionism is healthy, people do not strive for perfection, but rather excellence, hence reflecting “perfectionist strivings” (Stoeber, 2012). Hewitt & Flett (2007) added that perfectionism can be a form of high conscientiousness when striving to achieve, provided that the standards set are realistic and one can accept failure when their goals are not achieved. Maladaptive perfectionism therefore, often involves setting unrealistic standards, overreacting when not reaching such standards, and needing always to be in control (Margot and Rinn, 2016).
Hamachek (1978) points to the difference between how people experience perfectionism; healthy perfectionists can feel joy and pleasure when they achieve their goals, whereas unhealthy perfectionism can result in feeling unworthy or not good enough despite achievements. Unlike healthy perfectionism, maladaptive perfectionism can cause higher rates of distress and psychopathology such as, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, social anxiety and OCD (Limberg et al, 2016). Positive perfectionism results in low levels of depression while negative perfectionism brings about psychological distress (Cumming and Duda, 2012). Self-oriented perfectionism, therefore, can be more adaptive, especially when people strive to be their best because it is of value to them. Socially prescribed perfectionism, on the other hand, can have negative outcomes as the perception that others expect perfectionism is an ideal that cannot always be achieved in all circumstances, especially because it is often perceived (Hewitt and Flett, 1991).
Perfectionistic self-presentation is another aspect of perfectionism that has been studied in relation to validation and rejection. A sample of 183 young adults from a community sample completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale, and measures of growth seeking, validation seeking, rejection sensitivity, and depressive symptoms. Analyses confirmed that validation seeking was associated positively with all of the perfectionism measures, with strong associations between validation seeking and perfectionistic self-presentation (Endleman, Brittain, and Vaillancourt, 2021).
Unsurprisingly, socially prescribed perfectionism and perfectionistic self-presentation had positive associations with rejection sensitivity. Further analyses demonstrated that the associations between interpersonal perfectionism and depressive symptoms were mediated by validation seeking, and socially prescribed perfectionism interacted with high rejection sensitivity to predict higher depressive symptoms (Endleman et al, 2021). Overall, findings indicate that perfectionists are individuals who strive for perfection as a means of proving themselves, and they are hypersensitive to interpersonal cues indicating failure and lack of acceptance from others (Flett et al, 2014).
Research has shown that youth who display higher levels of adaptive perfectionism, such as in the case of self-oriented perfectionism, adapt more easily emotionally and psychologically, can resist peer pressure, are more focused on mastery a task than fear of failing (Bieling, Israeli, & Antony, 2004) which has positive outcomes for their achievement.
2.3 Perfectionism and Gifted Children
Numerous studies have been done on perfectionism and giftedness. Multiple studies have found that gifted children are not significantly more perfectionistic than those of average ability, but they tend to be at higher risk of developing this mindset, as they have higher academic standards for themselves, in addition to expectations their family members, friends, or teachers have for a child labeled as “exceptional” (Parker, 2000; Cross & Cross, 2015). ‘Exceptional children’ often find that they have different life experiences as compared to their peers, which can be psychologically demanding when they push themselves unnecessarily hard to appear ‘perfect’ which counts as a form of socially prescribed perfectionism (Coleman, 2012). Gifted children who do indeed exhibit behaviors and tendencies which indicate maladaptive perfectionism make them more susceptible to unhealthy levels of fear of failure and the other mental health effects.
Exploring perfectionism from a developmental perspective, a study by Margot and Rinn (2016) showed that the degree of perfectionism and its impact on one’s life can differ, based on gender, birth order, and the age or grade level of the student. The study showed no noticeable, statistically significant trend between grade level and perfectionism: seventh graders scored higher than eleventh graders but lower than eight graders on a questionnaire designed to test for perfectionistic tendencies. Other correlations revealed by the results were that first born, middle, or only children tended to be more concerned over making mistakes than youngest children. Concern over Mistakes was one of the sub-scales or dependent variables in the study, along with Parental Expectations, Personal Standards, and Organization. Overall, on these sub-scales as a whole, males (especially firstborns) exhibited more perfectionistic tendencies than females, except in the Organization category. Additionally, firstborns in general tended to be more perfectionistic in most of the sub scales except Doubts About Actions, for which middle children had higher scores.
Parental Expectations were an essential part of the results, specifically criticism, strict expectations for the adherence to rules, lack of approval, and modeling perfectionistic behavior for their children, all of which were factors that led to gifted children having excessive and unrealistic expectations of themselves when it came to perfection, culminating in their increased likelihood of exhibiting maladaptive perfectionism. This was similar to other studies (Basirion et al., 2014; Miller et al., 2012). In brief, key findings in the study were that among gifted adolescents, males and first-borns had tendencies to be more perfectionistic, and parental expectations played a vital role in that, as they led to gifted/talented children focusing on being ‘perfect’ in an unhealthier way (Margot and Rinn, 2016). The study also was aligned with recent findings that more young people strive for perfectionism today than in past generations.
A study by Curran and Hill (2019) collected data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students from 164 samples to identify generational changes in perfectionism between 1989 and 2016, using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. They measured students’ degree of self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism. In comparison to earlier generations, college students reported significantly higher scores for each dimension of perfectionism. Specifically, students scored 10% higher in self-oriented perfectionism, 16% higher in other-oriented perfectionism and 33% higher in socially prescribed perfectionism, indicating more students today feel others place greater pressure on them to perform at their best. Curran assessed that, “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”
2.4 Perfectionism and Achievement
The question as to whether perfectionism contributes to academic achievement was explored to understand whether striving for perfect grades “beyond what is necessary” always leads to desired student goals. The literature shows that one way this is assessed is by comparing outcomes for students who express these two domains: perfectionistic concerns (excessive worry about making mistakes, overly critical self-evaluation) versus perfectionistic strivings (setting and striving to meet high standards) (Rice, Richardson, & Tueller, 2014).
There is abundant evidence that striving for perfection can have positive outcomes on academic achievement, but not in all circumstances. Perfectionist strivings, observed more often in self-oriented perfectionism, have been associated with academic success, low procrastination, academic efficacy, mastery of goals and achievement, and negatively associated with acceptance of academic dishonesty (Damian, Stoeber, Negru, & Baban, 2014). Perfectionist concerns, most often observed with socially prescribed perfectionism, are often associated with test anxiety, fear of failure, lower academic success, and acceptance of academic dishonesty (Bong et al., 2014). Therefore, it appears that perfectionism that is motivated by the perceived disapproval of others has a more negative effect on learning or achieving than perfectionism that is motivated by personal aspirations. A reported limitation with the methodology of most of these cross-sectional studies is that perfectionism has been less measured with points in time to determine the consistency of the broader effect.
Another key difference between perfectionist striving and concern is that of accuracy in one’s academic self-evaluation which can account for one reason that self-oriented perfectionism leads to higher academic achievement than self-prescribed perfectionism (Park, Heo, Rice, Kim, 2020). It appears that self-oriented perfectionists have a greater tendency to monitor their progress, adjust their learning strategies and develop the skills they need to improve (Schunk, 1996) which leads to a higher form of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy, or belief in one’s ability, has been a consistent finding in studies on perfectionism and achievement that is best developed by setting challenging goals and developing strategies to master them. Confidence in one’s knowledge and ability, therefore, is strengthened when mastering a skill, task or academic goal. Commitment to a specific goal is another factor that has been studied with perfectionism. When committing to a goal is self-chosen, students tend to do better than when goals are viewed as imposed by others (Latham and Locke (1991). Therefore, self-oriented perfectionists have a greater tendency to commit to improving set academic goals than socially prescribed perfectionists, who may view some academic goals as being imposed by others, differentiating between being motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic purposes (Neumeister, 2004). This becomes important in understanding how young people cope with attaining achievement in academic goals.
The work of Dunkley, Zuroff, and Blankstein (2003) brings clarity to the importance of approach-avoidance coping styles that are related to academic achievement but also perfectionism. In their study they found that individuals with socially prescribed perfectionism, including concern over mistakes, are more self-critical, have lower self-efficacy and tend to have more avoidant coping styles in the form of disengagement from stressful events and denial, that explains both the tendency to procrastinate but also to justify their failure by “self-handicapping” or creating barriers to their success because of their fear of failure and facing their limitations (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). As a result, individuals with perfectionist concerns cannot assess their actual ability accurately, which is a strength in self-oriented perfectionists. High-performers tend to devalue their performance, while low performers have a tendency to overestimate themselves, avoiding a poor perception of themselves (Kim, Chiu, & Zou, 2010).
In athletic performance, there are similar findings related to perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings in athletes can have positive effects on athletes’ performance in relation to optimism for success, self-confidence, approach goal orientations, and self-serving attributions of success and failure (Stoeber & Becker, 2008). In contrast, perfectionistic concerns in athletes can have negative effects such as fear of failure, anxiety, avoidance goal tendencies, and self-depreciating attributions of success and failure (Stoeber & Becker, 2008). As a result, even adolescent athletes are at higher risk of burnout, affecting their motivation, self-esteem, health and athletic progress (Hall, 2006).
2.5 The Role of Parental Expectations
The origins of perfectionism have been studied through the observation of parenting styles and expectations. Perfectionist traits appear to become more apparent between grades 7 and 10, when youth have a greater sense of self-awareness and the expectations of others (Vaillancourt and Haltigan, 2018). In the study of perfectionism on adolescents, researchers examine the role of parental expectations and parental criticism in influencing adaptive or maladaptive perfectionism in their children. Findings have been quite consistent.
A study by Mitchell, Newall, Broeren, and Hudson (2013) that examined perfectionistic child rearing behaviors by mothers (i.e. overprotection from mistakes, focus on negative consequences of mistakes) found that children increased in behaviors associated with self-oriented perfectionism, as the focus was on natural consequences. Children who had non-perfectionistic parenting performed better in their tasks. While observing mothers and children doing homework, Kenney-Benson and Pomerantz (2005) found mothers who used psychological and behavioral coercion or were “pushy” toward children to achieve their tasks were likely to observe socially prescribed and self-oriented perfectionism by their children. Parental psychological control reflected maladaptive perfectionism according to a study by McArdle (2009). In their study, children whose parents induced guilt or withheld love to encourage achievement reported higher levels of doubts about their actions, compared to parents that gave children more autonomy and encouraged them without controlling their actions. Setting high standards does not appear to be problematic as much as being judgmental and punitive.
Setting high standards for youth can have positive outcomes. A study by Madjara, Voltsis and Weinstock (2013) found that high parental standards influenced adaptive perfectionist traits in college students in terms of organization, goal mastery and personal standards. In contrast, parental criticism influenced the development of maladaptive perfectionist traits such as concern over mistakes which are associated with performance-avoidance goal orientation. Researchers suggested that parents and teachers should set high goals for young people without criticizing them to influence for positive outcomes because striving for excellence can have positive results as long as the focus is on learning and not the negative emotions brought on by excessive anxiety and worry over making mistakes and disappointing others (Madjara et al, 2013). Learning and mastering tasks are more likely to occur in an environment that produces positive emotions as opposed to negative emotions that also affect mental and physical health and well-being.
2.6 Effects on Physical and Mental Health & Well-Being
In early research, perfectionism was often viewed as a psychological issue or disorder (Burns, 1980; Pacht, 1984) because people seeking treatment for anxiety and depression often exhibited higher rates of perfectionism (Stoeber, 2012). Today views have diversified, however, a meta-analysis of 284 studies found that perfectionism was at the root of insomnia, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, social phobia, self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder among others (Limberg, Watson, Hagger and Egan, 2016). It is also at the root of burnout and exhaustion, particularly when one is high in concern over mistakes and doubts, and over strives to fulfill a sense of contingent self-worth (Garratt-Reed et al., 2018).
Research indicates that, while both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists experience stress, individuals with maladaptive perfectionism have a higher rate of psychopathology in comparison to control groups in studies. In a meta analysis of 284 studies on perfectionism and psychopathology, depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, and bulimia nervosa affected both individuals to a degree with perfectionistic concerns and perfectionistic strivings (Egan et al. (2011). More specifically, researchers found that there was a higher relationship between perfectionist concerns and psychopathology in non-clinical populations than with perfectionistic strivings (Limberg, et al , 2016). Eating disorders, however, were related to both perfectionism dimensions. Perfectionistic concerns were more related to OCD, anxiety disorders and depression. Doubts about actions was highly correlated to OCD (Frost & Steketee, 1997). With respect to depression, self-oriented perfectionism was more prevalent than personal strivings (Hewitt & Flett, 1991a).
Eating disorders were strongly associated with perfectionism, especially in young people who experience high concern over mistakes and base their self-worth on appearance and relationships as opposed to those that have a higher tendency for only concern over mistakes or contingent self-worth (Bardone-Cone et al., 2016). During the COVID-19 pandemic, people with socially prescribed perfectionism having perfectionistic concerns tended to experience more negative emotions such as fear, worry, or sadness, which were escalated, as well as psychological distress, which led to greater levels of emotional eating and uncontrolled eating to mediate stress (Vacca, De Maria, Mallia, and Lombardo, 2021). The increase of stress during the pandemic caused more perfectionistic tendencies, and led to more eating disorders that involved people compulsively overeating, restraining themselves from eating or engaging in emotional eating in response to negative emotions. Eating more was reported more than self-starvation because as the survey found, people were less influenced by the social desirability effects due to the social isolation having less people to compare themselves to and less pressure to appear ‘perfect’ (Vacca, et al, 2021).
Treating psychological distress over perfectionistic tendencies early in life is recommended by mental health experts, particularly because perfectionists are often resistant to therapy (Hewitt, Smith, et al., 2020). It is stressed that while striving for standards (i.e., perfectionistic strivings) is a positive trait, negative outcomes are observed when there is an excessive concern over mistakes (i.e., perfectionistic concerns) and when individuals base their self-worth on striving and achieving (Egan, Wade, et al., 2014; Limberg et al, 2016). Cognitive behavioral therapy is believed to be the appropriate treatment for changing the mindset of individuals with maladaptive perfectionism.
2.7 Effects on Physical and Mental Health & Well-Being
The aim of this study was to explore the prevalence of perfectionism and its impact on achievement and well-being from a snowball sample of young people, aged 16-25 years old, recruited by international students participating in the Oxford Scholastica’s Academy Psychology Internship.
Oxford Scholastica Psychology (OSA) Interns developed an informal survey on Google Forms consisting of questions related to the health and well-being of young people 16-25 years old. The general aim was to explore to what degree youth identified with having perfectionistic traits and how it was affecting their health, well-being and sense of achievement.
Participants were recruited as a snowball sample. Interns participating in the OSA Psychology Internship represented youth in Asia, the Middle East, North America and Europe. Interns sent the survey electronically to their schools and targeted youth 16-25 years old. Given the timeframe of the internship, it was not possible to conduct a more extensive survey beyond the scope of the intern’s school environment, which constituted both private and public schools in their respective countries.
The age group of the participants was selected based on two factors: 1) recruited students could participate and provide their own consent and 2) this is the age group preparing to attend or already attending college. This target group could best provide feedback on the stress of academic achievement as experienced by high school students preparing for college and students already in college in the social environment of the psychology interns.
There were a total of 145 participants (n=145) who volunteered to take the survey. There were 105 females, 36-males, 4-preferred not to say. The majority of participants were between the ages of 16-17 years old (81%), 18-19 years old (17%) and 20-25 years old (2%). More than half of the respondents were from North America (60%), more than a third from Europe (36.6%), while Asia and the Middle East represented 3.6% of the participants.
Data Collection and Analysis
Given the timeframe of the internship (8 weeks), it was not possible to develop, pilot and standardize a measurement tool and therefore a more descriptive survey and analysis was employed, as opposed to a statistical one. The following key questions were addressed in the survey:
|1||Number of participants identifying with 5-7 statements reflecting perfectionist tendencies||
85.4% – yes
|14.5% – no|
|2.||When you strive for perfection, does it positively or negatively affect you?||48.0% – positively||52.0% – negatively|
|3.||Does striving for perfection always help you to reach your goals?||46.8% – yes||53.2% – no|
|4.||Trying to be perfect often makes me procrastinate.||79.0% – yes||21% – no|
|5.||Do you feel like you are in a competition with your friends/peers/coworkers in school, work or activities?||
33.1% – All of the time
30.6% – Most of the time
30.6% – Some of the time
|5.7% – Almost Never|
|6.||How distressed do you feel when you don’t meet your parents’ expectations?||
27.4% – Extremely
26.6% – Very Much
23.4% – Much
26.6% – Somewhat
5.6% – Some
|7.||In general, do you feel that your parents are aware of how their expectations affect your mental health or wellbeing?||
35.5% – Yes
64.5% – No
|8.||How distressed do you feel when you don’t meet your teachers’ expectations?||
24.2% – Extremely
25.0% – Very Much
25.8% – Much
|19.4% – Somewhat|
|9.||In general, do you feel that your teachers are aware of how their expectations affect your mental health or wellbeing?||
21.8% – Yes
78.2% – No
|10.||To what extent does societal influence (media and perceived social norms) affect your strive to meet high expectations?||
38.7% – Extremely
28.2% – Very Much
21.8% – Much
7.3 – Somewhat
1.0% – Not at all
|11.||Do you feel that the stress from needing to perform well in school, work, or activities affects your physical health?||
87.9% – Yes
12.1% – No
|12||Have you ever experienced burnout due to your perfectionism?||
88.6% – Yes
7.3% – No
4.6% – Prefer not to say
|13.||To what extent do your perfectionistic concerns negatively affect your mental health?||
34.7% – Extremely
40.3% – Very Much
21.0% – Much
2.4% – Somewhat
1.6% – Not at all
|14.||What is your favorite way of rebalancing the stress from a demanding week?||
30.6% – Socializing
25.0% – Internet Videos
19.4% – Music
14.5% – Sports/Exercise
5.6% – Reading
3.2% – Art
1.6% – Yoga/Mindfulness
Results and Findings
Beginning with the respondents to the survey, 85.4% identified as having perfectionistic tendencies. Slightly more than half (52%) felt that their perfectionism affected them negatively and did not always help them to reach their goals (53.2%). Procrastination was a common behavior for 79% of those who responded. A little more than a third felt they were in a competitive environment at school, work or within their friendship circle, all of the time (33.1%), most of the time (30.6%) and some of the time (30.6%).
With reference to striving to meet the expectations of others, 38.7% of young people were “extremely” influenced by social media and norms, while 28.2% were influenced “very much” and 21.8% were influenced “much”. Not meeting parental expectations caused “extreme” distress for 31.7% of participants, “very much” distress for 28.5%, “much” distress for 30.9% and “some or no” distress for 8.8%. Not meeting teacher expectations had slightly lower outcomes than parental: 24.2% felt “extreme” distress, 25% felt “very much” distress, 25.8% felt much distress and 24% felt little to no distress. When asked if their parents and teachers were aware of the level of distress they felt when not meeting their expectations, 64.5% reported that their parents were not aware, while 78.2% reported their teachers were not aware.
From a physical and mental health perspective, 87.9% reported that stress from the need to perform well in school, work, or activities was affecting their physical health, while 88.6% had experienced burnout. Over worrying about mistakes or having doubts about their actions (perfectionistic concern) affected young people’s mental health, extremely (34.7%), very much (40.3%), much (21%), little or none at all (4%). Finally, in order of importance, students strived the hardest for perfection in their academics, appearance, activities, family, their reputation, friends and neatness. The first factor affecting their perfectionistic concern or worry about mistakes was themselves, followed by their parents second, society third and their teachers last.
Perfectionism is a multidimensional construct with many aspects that influence behavior, often overlapping between adaptive and maladaptive responses. Research suggests that perfectionism involves rigidly demanding perfection of oneself or other people. There is a compulsive need for and concern with oneself or others being or appearing perfect. Higher achieving individuals mostly relate to self-oriented perfectionism, one of the six types of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism, includes “setting exacting standards for oneself and stringently evaluating and censuring one’s own behavior” (Hewitt and Flett, 1991, pg. 456) and to achieve perfection and avoid failure whatsoever. These individuals have the tendency to be highly self-critical and to evaluate themselves against the impossible standard of perfection. People striving for personal standards, which can differ from self-oriented perfectionism, are sometimes less likely to procrastinate and more likely to feel a sense of self-efficacy. This leads to higher achieving people and an adaptive form of perfectionism. They strive to meet their expectations for themselves and manage better with failure.
One may assume that perfectionism only leads to higher achieving people, but with a certain combination of the six dimensions of perfectionism, a lower achieving individual can be born. A combination of self-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism can lead to the greatest severity of negative outcomes, such as lower grades, athlete burnout, and social physique anxiety. Individuals with this combination of perfectionism traits have higher exhaustion and negative affect compared to non-perfectionists. Equally harmful is striving for perfection to fulfill one’s “contingent” self-worth based on other’s expectations. which results in having lower accurate awareness of their own abilities, making it more difficult to invest energy to self-improve for intrinsic purposes, which can lead to stronger outcomes in academics, activities or personal pursuits. Socially prescribed perfectionism therefore can be more maladaptive.
In examining the results of the survey, a great number of young people are experiencing negative aspects of perfectionism. This is evident in the high number of responses who reported having experienced physical and mental ill health or even burnout. As a self-report, this could be influenced by how people define ill health and burnout, which may be different than scientific definitions. However, despite this, it indicates that young people are experiencing distress and therefore must be noted. In terms of achievement, approximately an equal number of people feel they have benefitted from their perfectionism while others have not. A qualitative component of the survey perhaps could shed more clarity on this point.
In terms of social influence, as most of the participants are still under parental care, it was very interesting to note that while young people are very conscious of parental expectations and feel distressed when they cannot meet them, parents did not appear to be the motivating driver of their perfectionism – according to responses, it was themselves! A more standardized assessment might have been able to determine how many people identified with self-oriented or socially prescribed perfectionism. In terms of disappointing teachers by not meeting their expectations, there were varying degrees of distress reported, and a small number that was not distressed at all, however, distress is experienced. This leads to the number of respondents that felt that teachers and parents were not aware of how much distress students felt because of adult expectations. The numbers were clear—participants believe that parents and teachers are not aware that their demands and expectations negatively affect students. This means that schools must do more to inform both teachers and parents of how to encourage young people to strive and reach their best without criticism and undue pressure. It is also important that young people learn to express their distress to significant others. Societal pressure to be perfect also affected more than half of young people, as experienced by perceived competition in school and work environments, but also social media.
Last, according to the results, the area of focus of participants’ perfectionism was primarily academics with secondary importance given to appearance, activities, family, reputation, friends and neatness. This can be explained by the snowball effect of this sample, as students participating in an extra academic course amidst the school year may be more academically motivated, along with their peers who were invited to participate in this survey. Surveying students with strong interests other than academics may have different results.
There were many limitations to this study, as it was a learning tool that required more time to strengthen its scientific qualities. Making valid assessments in alignment with empirical research therefore was difficult without using standardized instruments and statistical analysis. However, one strength of the study that was apparent and fulfilled the goals of this research project was identifying the prevalence of perfectionism among high achieving youth in this sample and the challenges it brings to young people. On the other hand, the questions were focused on primarily maladaptive responses and therefore more positive experiences of perfectionism were not identified.
In light of both empirical research findings and responses to this survey, it is apparent that young people work hard to excel and succeed. This indicates the need to build a stronger commitment by schools and school counselors to teach students healthy stress management coping skills while aligning parents’ and teachers’ efforts to better support youth and not overburden them. With so much adolescent research available, it is important to adapt to practices that truly inspire, motivate and encourage youth to reach their best, which is inclusive of identifying character traits that build worth and esteem beyond just grade reports and GPAs. The amount of potential in each young person is overwhelming! Nurturing them with evidence-based practices can better protect them from exhausting their potential.
Given the complexity of the study of perfectionism and psychopathology, in general, it is important for youth to understand that the intricacy of each individual is unique to themselves and their life experiences and therefore, outcomes of studies cannot define them exclusively. Psychology literature is a tremendous tool of knowledge and awareness, but it is important to seek professional support and advice when in question or in need.
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