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What the new cult of perfectionism means for motherhood

Precarious working conditions, social media obsessions and paranoid parenting are turning young people into extreme perfectionists – with alarming results.

The first thing to know is that perfectionism isn’t something to brag about in a job interview. We tend to value it as a character trait that is linked to illustriousness, diligence and high achievement, and if the downside to being a perfectionist is a certain neuroticism, then the pay-off might seem worth it. After all, no one wants to encounter a sloppy surgeon or a slapdash pilot.

Psychologists used to follow this thinking, too. They once distinguished between healthy perfectionism, the kind that makes you aim high and work hard, and maladaptive perfectionism, the sort that turns you into a psychological mess with a debilitating fear of failure.

Nowadays, however, there’s broadening agreement among researchers that perfectionism is always harmful. When we focus on its apparent upsides we are often confusing it with more useful qualities such as conscientiousness.

What distinguishes the perfectionist are ruthless self-criticism and a tendency to set unattainable goals. Perfectionism is often self-defeating: a fear of failure and habit of dwelling on mistakes have been shown to drag down performance, whether on the sports field or in the classroom. Worse, it is linked to a range of serious mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression and anorexia. There’s a link between perfectionism and suicide.

Perfectionism is on the rise. A 2017 study found that the number of young people who are perfectionists has increased substantially over the past three decades. The researchers distinguished between three kinds: “self-oriented perfectionism”, the irrational desire to be perfect; “other-oriented perfectionism”, the tendency to hold other people to unrealistic standards; and “socially prescribed perfectionism”, the belief that other people are judging you harshly and that you need to be perfect to secure social approval.

The study analysed surveys conducted with more than 40,000 students attending universities in Canada, the US and the UK between 1989 and 2016 and found that all three forms of perfectionism have become more common. Self-oriented perfectionism has increased by 10 per cent over the past three decades, other-oriented perfectionism by 16 per cent, and socially prescribed perfectionism, the strongest predictor of depression and suicidal thoughts, has increased by almost a third. The authors write that people have become more competitive and materialistic, and point to the “doctrine of neoliberal meritocracy” that leads to individuals being “sorted, sifted and ranked” in school and at work. They argue that anxious, controlling parents are “passing their own achievement anxieties on to their children”.

This was the first study to quantify how perfectionism has changed over time, and it echoed other researchers’ warnings of an “epidemic” of perfectionism. It also shed new light on the troubling rise in mental illness among young people. British universities are reporting record high levels of depression and anxiety on campus. The leading cause of death for children and teenagers in England and Wales is suicide. At the heart of the modern cult of perfectionism is a tragic irony: the young people striving for perfection so that they can thrive in our achievement-obsessed society are the least equipped to cope with our competitive and unforgiving economic culture.

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Perfectionism is less a behaviour than an attitude, a way of existing in the world. It could explain why, although I have been working as a journalist for seven years, I still feel terror each time I file a story that this one is catastrophically bad. Perfectionism might be behind my habit of categorising most successes as near misses and even minor setbacks as evidence that I should do something else with my life.

As a moral philosophy, perfectionism – the idea that the good life consists of striving towards some ethical or political ideal – has a lineage that can be traced to Aristotle. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that perfectionism as a character type became the subject of mounting concern for psychologists. Its rise is linked to a soaring individualism that elevates self-realisation, self-care, being true to oneself, above almost everything else. 

Modern individualism emerged in the second half of the 20th century, as hierarchies flattened, traditional ties loosened and social mobility rose. But it found its fullest expression with the free-market reforms of the 1980s and the belief that government should step back and liberate citizens from the overbearing welfare state. Millennials were told that if we worked hard and had the right attitude we could, should, be whoever we wanted to be. We understood the flip side too: if we didn’t achieve what we set out to, we had only ourselves to blame. We grew up in a society that venerates the self-made man and is obsessed with professional success; then as young adults we entered an economy that increasingly offers outsize rewards to exceptional individuals and overlooks the rest.

A 2016 report by the Resolution Foundation found that millennials may be the first generation in recent British history to earn less than their parents. People born after 1982 are also more precariously employed than previous generations: they are more likely to be working part-time, to be self-employed or to have a temporary job. The think tank IPPR found that one in five young people are underemployed, and the same proportion are overqualified for their jobs. Between 2004 and 2014 the number of graduates in non-professional or non-managerial jobs doubled. Young people know they are easily replaceable, in the immediate term by another graduate overqualified for the role and, potentially within their lifetime, by a robot – the perfect worker.

Currently around 6 per cent of the British workforce are employed in the gig economy, whether as Uber drivers or Deliveroo riders, or as freelance professionals, such as journalists. This proportion is forecast to rise. When work is just a gig, you’re forced to compete for every pay cheque. The usual protections no longer apply: forget minimum wage provision or sick pay or knowing how much money you’ll take home each month. But, as a culture, we don’t like to think of gig work like that.

Since last year, commuters in London and New York have been confronted with poster ad campaigns from Fiverr, a website that connects employers to freelancers who will work for as little as $5 (£3.55). One poster featured a woman with sexily dishevelled hair and dark-ringed eyes and the text: “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” Another carries the slogan: “Nothing like a safe, reliable paycheck to crush your soul”.

The companies driving the gig economy like to glorify their workers as instinctive grafters and hustlers, free spirits who refuse to be pinned down to a nine-to-five. There’s nothing new about zero-hour contract work, it’s old-fashioned drudgery rebranded and repackaged for the smartphone age, but we’re all under pressure to participate in this modern myth-making. To be seen as employable, we have to profess a love for work, a passion for professional challenges. We all have to be “doers” now. 

IPPR found that young people in part-time or temporary work were significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than those in stable, full-time employment. Millennials, however, won’t spin their lives that way. This dissemblance means it’s easy to feel inadequate: does everyone else thrive off the naked competition and unrelenting grind? What’s wrong with me? But it comes naturally to a generation of perfectionists. We instinctively cover up our flaws.

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The pressure to excel is intensified because it has never been easier or faster to quantify and rank human performance. Journalists who once relied for feedback on the occasional reader letter now know that their bosses can view almost instantly how many people read their articles and, worse still, how many readers grow bored within seconds and click away. Warehouse workers know that Amazon can track their every move; salesmen know that each minute they spend before closing a deal can be automatically logged and analysed; teachers, doctors and civil servants are slaves to quixotic government targets.

Not all of this pressure is top-down. This is the era of 360-degree feedback and public ratings. Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts and small business owners are at the mercy of their customer reviews and increasingly, doctors and teachers are too. One small mistake or miscommunication can be disastrous. As customers we have become punitive and vicious. That’s partly because the impersonal nature of our on-screen interactions has shifted social norms: the kind of person who would rather contract E. coli than complain in a restaurant might think nothing of giving a one-star rating to an Uber driver who took a wrong turn. But it could also be because we’re becoming a nation of other-oriented perfectionists, who place unrealistic expectations on others and respond with hostility when they fall short. In this kind of atmosphere, it’s rational to be scared of messing up.

Social media allows us to measure social success and failure in ways never previously possible. It taps into our instinctive desire for public approval and tendency towards social comparison. We are hard-wired to chase likes, followers and retweets. Online, we experience cognitive dissonance. Rationally, we know our friends’ Facebook accounts are only distantly related to their everyday lives, and yet when we scroll through our timelines that’s easy to forget. It feels like everyone else is more attractive than we are, having more fun and getting more promotions. No wonder that study after study has shown a correlation between heavy social media use and depression and anxiety.

The internet also contributes to our punitive attitude towards our bodies, our discomfort with lumpen, mottled, real-life flesh that fails to conform to beauty standards artificially raised by plastic surgery and Photoshop. In a cruel twist, celebrities in the social media age now emphasise how “ordinary” they are. Forget the expensive, restrictive diets, the hours they spend in hair and make-up, the obvious artifice of the Instagram shot, the message is: you could be just like them. Why aren’t you? Between 2011 and 2017, the number of people hospitalised annually in Britain with potentially life-threatening eating disorders doubled to almost 14,000. Perfectionists are more vulnerable to such disorders, and a tragic symmetry exists between the two. The perfectionist can never be good enough, the anorexic can never be thin enough. Both are doomed to fail. 

Our digital conversations and public jostling for approval have helped transmit a moralistic attitude towards body shape and so-called wellness, in which foods are “sinful” or “virtuous”, and ritualistic eating habits and self-imposed starvation are reconceived as expressions of self-respect and empowerment. The most beautiful women are not just thin, they are “strong”: the starved queens of Instagram must lift weights now, too. The wellness industry has created another way for individuals to blame themselves for their failure to thrive professionally. Popular makeover shows underline the idea that to change your life, you must begin by changing yourself. Feel trapped in a job you hate? Find the real you, then learn to love it. Fix your haircut, fix your diet – and the rest will follow. The message seems empowering, but there’s a darker subtext: if you’re unhappy, that’s on you.

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In the final days of my pregnancy, a friend suggested I should download an app called Total Baby Pro. It allowed users to log how long their baby slept and fed for, when they had a bath and how many times they had a dirty nappy – as well as if the contents of the nappy were “wet”, “mixed” or “solids”, and if those solids were “black” or “mustardy”.

The app was surprisingly useful during my first weeks of motherhood. Doctors kept asking me about my daughter’s nappy production and I could answer them in more detail than they needed. I became a Total Baby Pro addict. Motherhood rendered me a nervous wreck, and the app’s stats helped focus my anxieties. When my husband returned from work I’d rush to the door, thrust the baby towards him and offload my latest, precisely quantified concern in an unnatural, shrill voice. “She’s only nursed for 74 minutes today, she usually does at least 108. Do you think she’s sick?”

A couple of months into this madness I received the most alarming app notification. Total Baby Pro had gone bust! After that, the app started bugging. It would allege that I had been continuously breastfeeding for 36 hours or that my baby had just taken a ten-hour nap (if only!). Soon it was unusable. I tried several other apps but none felt as easy to use and so I gave them up altogether.

It would have been nice if this had lifted my incapacitating fear of maternal failure. I alternated between frenzies of book reading, nursery rhyme singing and stimulating play and periods of despondency when I just watched my daughter, so small and warm and curious, so perfect, and thought she was cursed to have me as her mother. She deserved someone less distracted, more competent. These anxieties are not unique or modern, and they were amplified by the baby blues, a cute euphemism for the period I was so love-struck and hormonal that I felt transformed into a human-shaped wound. But the problem was also that middle-class attitudes to parenting encourage parents to set unattainable standards for themselves and their offspring. Millennials who have developed perfectionist traits in response to our work culture and social media interactions are now finding those anxieties playing a role in how they raise their children. 

My friends and I prepared for motherhood by piling our bedside tables high with parenting books. We learned about the Wonder Weeks and the Ferber method. We bought slings so we could be like the Ye’kuana tribespeople of the Venezuelan rainforest, whose babies never cry. We lost hours googling the safest car seats and the most educational toys and the bottle teats that best resemble human nipples. And when our babies refused to play along, by going on hunger strikes or screaming all night, we rifled through our dog-eared baby books to work out how we’d messed up. Of course it was all our fault.

New York’s Upper East Side, the sharp-elbowed Manhattan district that has been my home for the past year, is now serviced by a highly paid army of parenting professionals. It is common to seek out a baby sleep consultant for nap refusers and a nutritionist for picky eaters. The experts that once treated children encountering serious challenges – child psychologists, speech therapists – are increasingly recruited to troubleshoot everyday problems. We are so fearful of our children being left behind.

Research has shown that as inequality rises, parents tend to become stricter and more controlling. They know that the social and economic cost of their children’s failure is much higher. A 2014 study by the American National Bureau of Economic Research found that widening income inequality since the 1980s has precipitated a return to stricter parenting styles in the US and UK. In both countries, time-use surveys indicate that from the 1990s highly educated parents (who know their children have most to gain from studying hard) also began spending more time with their children on educational activities. They were responding to what researchers called the “rug rat race”, the ever-greater competition for top schools and universities. One of the more troubling – and controversial – suggestions made by the authors of the 2017 perfectionism study is that perfectionism could be self-perpetuating. Are parents passing their excessively high standards and fear of failure on to their children? 

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As with any trend, there are counter-currents. In the 1950s the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott first used the phrase  the “good-enough mother”, and argued that (limited) maternal failure helped children become adaptive and able to cope on their own. The term was popularised by Bruno Bettelheim’s 1987 book, A Good Enough Parent. Similarly, the burgeoning genre of self-help literature occasionally produces a crop of titles with an anti-perfectionist message. Recent best-sellers include Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Sarah Knight’s The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. The expletives emphasise the idea of transgression, but really they are selling only a minor rebellion, the giddy release one might feel smoking behind the school bike shed or pulling a sickie. Their titles are also misleading: both authors are ultimately concerned, to mirror their language, with how to be more strategic about the fucks you give. Their central message is still one of self-improvement.

They are joined by the more soberly titled Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by the Danish professor Svend Brinkmann, who brings a sometimes comically brooding, Scandi noir aesthetic to what he terms his “anti-self-help book”. He looks to Stoic philosophy for values he believes could give us a more lasting sense of purpose than modern society’s “superficial focus on permanent development and transformation”. Be less introspective, he suggests, learn to say no. Sack your therapist and make friends with them instead – perhaps by taking them to the museum or on a nature walk. Don’t be sucked in by the misery memoirist’s insistence that every bad thing that happens to you is a gift. Think about your own mortality. Stop reading self-help books and read more novels.

His manifesto for negative thinking can make for an oddly uplifting read. It’s not exactly a solution – perfectionism is a symptom of an economic and cultural malaise that is beyond anyone’s individual control. But it might just have to do. 

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right