Written by Mili Dhru, Contributing Writer
In a psychological context, perfectionism is defined as the “tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation” (American Psychology Association, n.d.). Even without a background in psychology or any prior, in-depth knowledge about mental health, it is evident how strongly such a tendency could correlate to severe mental health issues. And it does! A study that was conducted in 2016 identified a direct link between high levels of perfectionism and the prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Limburg et al., 2016). Striving to achieve such an unattainable ideal is seen as normal behavior among an increasing number of youth. Not to mention, the growing popularity of various social media platforms has only further exacerbated these tendencies.
Perfectionism has become the lived experience of Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2015, and every day we witness the impact of this cultural phenomenon firsthand. There are three common subsets of perfectionist tendencies: “self-oriented”, where an individual demands perfection from their own self; “other-oriented”, where an individual demands perfection from others around them; and “socially prescribed”, where the individual feels “external pressure from the larger world and society to be perfect” (Aschwanden, 2019). Being the eldest daughter of South Asian immigrant parents and living in 2021 America, I can categorize many of my experiences with perfectionism into these distinct subsets. Around the time I was in middle school, Instagram had just been released to the public and was rapidly growing in popularity; users could instantly share snapshots of their daily lives and virtually interact with friends, making the app all the rage.
I remember downloading Instagram and creating a profile, excited to share my own haphazardly edited photos with my small circle of followers. As I began using the app more frequently, however, I became sucked into the vacuum of glamor and allure portrayed through every post. I too wanted to resemble the trendsetters and socialites who went viral and gained thousands of followers. I recall making absurdly unreasonable demands to my parents for a stylish new wardrobe and makeover. It was not until much later that I realized how toxic and unhealthy Instagram could be, and how it can enable us to witness the highlight reels of people’s lives – the perfect pictures of what they want us to see.
As previously mentioned, perfectionism can also be projected from an individual onto those around them. Coming from a traditional South Asian household, I am often the subject of my parents’ perfectionist tendencies. As a result, I have always aimed to fit the mold of the Indian daughter they expect me to be, adhering to the cultural norms and beliefs I was raised to uphold. In Southeast Asian society especially, the pressure to “stick to the status quo” is intense, and those who deviate from the stereotype are heavily frowned upon. I now recognize how markedly this mentality has impacted me, and how many mental health issues that I have personally struggled with in the past ( and am still working to overcome) have stemmed from these projections.
Perfectionism can also be “socially prescribed”, derived from the pressure to be flawless in society’s eyes. My account of socially prescribed perfectionism is one that many others my age can likely relate to as well. Amidst such a competitive environment, how can we as individuals achieve the next big thing? For some, it might be becoming the next big shot influencer; for others, it might be owning several luxury cars and a residential property before the age of 25. Regardless, the goal is the same – Constantly leveling up to obtain one of the most elusive things known to mankind: perfection.
Aschwanden, C. (2019, December 5). Perfectionism is a mental health risk. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/27/20975989/perfect-mental-health-perfectionism
Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2016). The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(10), 1301–1326. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22435
Perfectionism. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/perfectionism