During many job interviews, it’s common to be asked: “What’s your biggest weakness?” It’s a horrible question to respond to on the spot. We know it’s a trick, and the answer isn’t: “Sometimes it takes me more than two hours to stop looking at my phone and get dressed after a shower,” or: “I spend my free time constructing elaborate revenge fantasies.”
The cheat’s answer of choice, the panicky pick that puts you in a better light than the truth might, is along the lines of: “I’m a perfectionist.”
Sure, a little nervy, a little obsessive, but ultimately a detail-oriented workaholic who will not leave the office until the project is completed to the highest possible standard.
However, if you’re a millennial (broadly defined as anyone aged between 18 and 35), there’s a good chance that perfectionism really is your biggest weakness.
A study published by Thomas Curran and Andrew P Hill found the majority of respondents were experiencing “multidimensional perfectionism”, or the pressure to meet increasingly high standards, measured by a widening collection of metrics. The study linked this with the growing number of cases of mental illness among people in their 20s, including eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Perfectionism is a weakness. It’s making us ill.
It’s easy to blame social media for this. The study found that a lot of the perfectionism centred around the participants’ need to “measure up” to their peers, and that they tended to judge others harshly, too.
Anyone with an Instagram account can probably relate to this. We’re coming towards the end of a decade in which we’ve been encouraged to think of our public life as a performance instead of a participation exercise. We know how it feels to envy other people and their celebrations, achievements and holidays, and that our craving for validation leads to feelings of isolation.
Justin Rosenstein, the engineer who created the Facebook “like” button, described a “like” as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”, and he has rationed his own social media use, comparing Snapchat to heroin.
We know the way we use social media isn’t good for us.So why are we millennials so susceptible to its lure?
I believe that for many of us, the problem started at school. In 1992, Ofsted was launched as a way of nationalising school inspections and ensuring that students throughout the country were taught and looked after to a high standard. Later that decade, there was a push to encourage a greater number of young people to go to university – as many as 50%, compared with 3.4% of school leavers in 1950.
Broadly speaking, this was a brilliant thing, making life fairer and giving millions of young people the chance to fulfil their potential and access brand new opportunities. Yet I suspect that was also the point where the pressure started to mount. The number of tests, exams and ways of measuring performance increased. It wasn’t enough to aim for an A: we had to shoot for the A-star.
The year between GCSEs and A-levels was occupied by an extra exam, the AS level, and we were told that the competition for university places was so great that we needed to stand out by choosing extra subjects. At my school, the joke was that we called them “mocks”, because you could mock the girls who hyperventilated over them, or fainted with stress – you were meant to keep your anxiety powder dry for the real, terrifying deal. Because it was easy to convince ourselves that, if we got a B, our lives would be over before they had begun.
I’m part of a generation that has been conditioned to seek out metrics. We crave grades, and we long to know how well we’re performing compared with our peers, because this is how we grew up. When Facebook launched, initially it was available only to students – students being the perfect customers, because we were desperate for the validation it offered. We had grown up conflating our sense of our self-worth with our sense of achievement. And being on social media meant there was another target to meet, and another space in which to fear failure.
Perfectionism can allow us to aim high and achieve great things. However, perfectionists are doomed to failure, because we set ourselves standards that are not attainable for humans. We will never meet our goals, to the detriment of our mental health and wellbeing. When we go online, we’re surrounded by platforms that appear to be full of other people meeting these goals. Intellectually, we know it’s all a lovely lie, but emotionally it’s a struggle. Feelings seem like facts.
We need to protect future generations from perfectionism, and recognise that it’s not an advantage masquerading as a weakness. It’s destroying us, and making us desperately sad. I hope the new research inspires us all to check our perfectionist tendencies, and focus on our health and happiness instead. Perfection is a myth, but it can destroy us in ways that are all too real.