Why is society so obsessed with unrealistic standards?

Perfectionism in society is a false friend that has long lived under the illusory guise of raising standards.

It’s the go-to “weakness” reeled out in job interviews across the world, with the unspoken understanding that unrealistic standards are actually secretly desirable.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The affliction of meticulous ideals is in fact contributing to higher rates of burnout, poorer mental health and crushes creativity.

So why then, despite this, is society becoming increasingly obsessed with unrealistic standards?

Why are people obsessed with perfection?

I am a self-confessed recovering perfectionist.

For plenty of years, I blindly followed the path of perfectionism using some incredibly misguided thinking that went something like this…

If I can always be my best, if I can be everything everybody ever needs me to be, then I will never face rejection, disappointment, and defeat. Basically, if I’m perfect I get to dodge suffering and “win” at life.

It won’t come as too much of a spoiler alert to confess from the get-go that this grand plan had one rather obvious drawback — perfection doesn’t actually exist.

Still, I didn’t let logic get in the way of attempting to hold myself (and often others) to impossibly exacting standards. I was quick to chastise and berate myself for any tiny perceived error along the way.

Far from being unique in this bizarre quest for the unfeasible, research shows that perfectionism is not only common but also increasing over time. The consequences of which aren’t pretty.

What happens when society takes perfection too seriously?

The root cause of perfectionism is believing that your self-worth is based on your achievements. It is driven by a desire to please and gain approval.

The problem is that perfectionism also feeds that voice in your head which tells you that you are not good enough already.

It can also be incredibly isolating when it prevents us from admitting and accepting our perfectly natural flaws and seeking outside help, guidance and support.

Research has highlighted the truly damaging impact that unrealistic standards can have. The authors of a study on perfectionism note that:

“Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others.”

Collecting data on over 40,000 college students in the UK, U.S., and Canada from 1989 to 2016, researchers set about answering the question of whether perfectionism is rising among college students. It is the first study to compare perfectionism across generations and it came to some startling conclusions.

Not only did they discover that perfectionism is on the rise, but they also found that it may be to blame for increasing rates of anxiety and depression among young people.

“There is growing evidence that the increase in psychological ill-health of young people may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in. Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement, how they should look, and what they should own. Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.”

Perfectionism isn’t generic and actually comes in different forms. The research found a worrying trend for an increase of one of the most damaging forms of perfectionism, called socially prescribed perfectionism. This is when you think that others are holding you to unrealistic expectations that you cannot live up to.

“It is also the form of perfectionism that exhibits the largest association of all the dimensions with a host of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social phobia, and suicidal thoughts. The increase in socially prescribed perfectionism makes for a compelling backdrop for almost epidemic levels of serious mental illness in young people.”

Why are we increasingly striving for unrealistic standards?

If unrealistic standards kind of suck (understatement of the year) why are so many people perfectionists?

So many in fact that Katie Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University, says it’s reaching dangerous levels.

“As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists. We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.”

The reason is unlikely to be one factor alone. Instead, experts point to a potent mix of contributing components that include demanding job markets, unstable economies, the rise of social media, and standardized school testing at an early age.

Cultural shifts have created a breeding ground for standards being constantly pushed higher. One of the likely cultural culprits highlighted by experts is neoliberalism.

A relatively new ideology increasingly embraced since the 1970s that promotes free-market competition, it simultaneously encourages one-upmanship.

This merit-based system sees us rewarded for performing better than others. Higher grades, better results, and climbing the jobs ladder become advantages in life. Meanwhile, a lack of competitiveness is seemingly punished, with safeguards against failure removed.

We’re essentially rated and ranked from a very young age, and those who don’t stack up can be left feeling woefully inadequate and under threat.

Studies have suggested that controlling parents aren’t helping matters either. High standards are passed on to children, leaving them overly critical of themselves — which then only gets worse with age.

The cultural narrative has left us increasingly buying into a false belief that success is wholly earned rather than having anything to do with luck.

Within this framework, getting ahead in life is dictated by worthiness, and any shortcomings are seen as purely your own fault.

What triggers perfectionism?

According to PsychCentral perfectionism can be triggered by various factors:

  • Rigid, high parental expectations
  • Highly critical, shaming, or abusive parents
  • Excessive praise for your achievements
  • Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate
  • Believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements
  • Black-and-white thinking
  • Efforts to feel in control
  • Cultural expectations

How social media feeds into unrealistic standards

I am sitting on the beach watching two young girls who have set up an impromptu photoshoot on the rocky outcrop that overlooks the ocean, taking countless snaps for one another on their phones.

As they contort themselves into what appeared to me to be incredibly uncomfortable positions, I’m struck by how unselfconscious they seem to be at publically pouting and posing.

15 years ago scenes like this would probably have been viewed as slightly bewildering behavior. But these days it is increasingly the norm.

Is this a reflection of the much-discussed narcissistic youth? If it is, studies have suggested that far from being their fault, they are merely a reflection of the times.

Times when social media encourages #comparisonitus, self-promotion, fear of missing out, and endless selfies.

In fact, rather than being a blatant sign of self-inflated ego, there’s evidence to suggest the opposite could be true and it’s a sign of low self-esteem.

Research has found that people who spend a lot of time perfecting selfies are more likely to be struggling with body dissatisfaction.

Whilst another study discovered the more selfies you take and post online, the less attractive and less confident you are likely to feel, as Professor Jennifer Mills explains:

“Even though they can make the end result look ‘better’, they still are focused on aspects of what they don’t like about the way they look…There’s this rollercoaster of feeling anxious and then getting reassurance from other people that you look good…but that probably doesn’t last forever, and then you take another selfie.”

Inherently biased platforms that fail to accurately represent reality bombard us on a daily basis with standards of the ideal, whether it be around beauty, success, fitness, or morality.

A quick 5-minute scroll can present plenty of photoshopped celebrities, size zero models, and envy-inducing influencers with an apparently perfect life.

Is it surprising that many of us find it impossible to measure up to the fantasy? Perhaps not.

Despite being a fun and convenient tool for connection, social media has also been shown to negatively impact mental health (especially for teens) along with being linked to body image issues.

For those already vulnerable to unrealistic standards, the online world can be a brutal place.

Why perfectionism is so damaging

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Far from driving progress, perfectionism has a habit of hindering it.

If fear of failure and getting it wrong becomes your primary concern, then it’s tempting to put off and delay until everything is “just right”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that a link has been established between perfectionism and procrastination.

Unrealistic standards lead to an increase in anxiety which can lend itself to procrastination as well as stifling creativity, which is a key component in innovation.

The problem with perfectionism is that it is goal orientated to the extreme and so only really concerned with the outcome and not the process.

When you operate from unrealistic standards you seek the best results but are motivated more so as a means of avoiding failure than of creating something of value.

Perfectionism leaves our offerings to the world living under the fear of judgment, criticism, and rejection.

Ultimately one of the notable problems with perfectionism is that all growth requires failure.

Improvement requires failure, advancement requires failure and the achievement of anything worthwhile in life requires failure.

And if there is one thing that perfectionists do not like it is failure. The paradox is that the greatest success usually demands the greatest failure.

Even if we spend our entire lives trying to avoid it, all routes will occasionally lead to a certain amount of failure, whether we like it or not.

Research has suggested that even simply having very high personal standards could do little for us.

In a meta-analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism and burnout, it was found that athletes, employees, and students experienced either a tiny or no benefit from very high standards.

The cure for unrealistic standards

If we want to free ourselves from the burden of unrealistic standards it all starts with recognizing that perfectionism is not our friend. It actually turns us into our own worst enemy.

As perfectionist researcher, Andrew Hill says, “Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.”

And that framework for which you see yourself isn’t about high standards, it’s about unrealistic standards.

We need to understand that working hard, being committed, and being diligent is something very different.

Tips to tackle unrealistic standards:

• Question your critical voice

Like most things in life, making a positive change starts with awareness. Learning to notice the negative or judgmental voice that criticizes you or compares you to others allows you to begin to question it.

• Force yourself to look for the positives

If you have a tendency to focus on your perceived failings, start to actively look for the positives. Negative thinking often becomes an unconscious habit that can have terrible consequences for your mental health. When something goes wrong, rather than being hard on yourself, understand that mistakes and failures happen in life. “I’m disappointed, but it’s ok, this doesn’t define me, I have many good qualities”.

• Try to focus on the process not the result

When feeling good about ourselves relies on the final outcome we set ourselves up for disappointment. Shifting focus from the end result onto learning from and putting enthusiastic energy into the process can help you to feel more proud, regardless of the outcome. It’s about cultivating a growth mindset. This helps to take off the pressure because the point is in the “doing” rather than the result.

• Work on your self-esteem

Unrealistic standards can be a sign of low self-esteem. Perfectionists often struggle to receive criticism as they are already so hard on themselves. We are more likely to compare ourselves negatively to others (whether it be over performance, looks, weight, etc.) when we don’t have a strong sense of self-worth and self-love.

Picture of Louise Jackson

Louise Jackson

My passion in life is communication in all its many forms. I enjoy nothing more than deep chats about life, love and the Universe. With a masters degree in Journalism, I’m a former BBC news reporter and newsreader. But around 8 years ago I swapped the studio for a life on the open road. Lisbon, Portugal is currently where I call home. My personal development articles have featured in Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, Thrive Global and more.

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