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Psychologists Discover a Rise in "Neoliberal Perfectionism"


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At Jacobin, Meagan Day examines a revealing new study conducted by psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill. It suggests that perfectionism, the psychological tendency to hold oneself and others to an unrealistically high standard, has skyrocketed in recent decades. As Day writes, the study’s author attribute this rise to increasing competitiveness in all realms of life, from schooling and career to relationships: “Neoliberal meritocracy, the authors suggest, has created a cutthroat environment in which every person is their own brand ambassador, the sole spokesman for their product (themselves) and broker of their own labor, in an endless sea of competition.”

Check out an excerpt from the piece below.

As Curran and Hall observe, this state of affairs “places a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the center of modern life,” far more so than in previous generations.

They cite data showing that young people today are less interested in engaging in group activities for fun, attending instead to individual endeavors that make them feel productive or fill them with a sense of achievement. When the world is demanding that you prove yourself worthy at every turn, and you can’t shake the suspicion that the respect of your peers is highly conditional, hanging out with friends can seem less compelling than staying in to meticulously curate your social media profiles.

One consequence of this rise in perfectionism, Curran and Hall argue, has been a series of epidemics of serious mental illness. Perfectionism is highly correlated with anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The constant compulsion to be perfect, and the inevitable impossibility of the task, exacerbate mental-illness symptoms in people who are already vulnerable. Even young people without diagnosable mental illnesses tend to feel bad more often, since heightened other-oriented perfectionism creates a group climate of hostility, suspicion, and dismissiveness — in which the jury is always out on everyone, pending group appraisal — and socially prescribed perfectionism involves an acute recognition of that alienation. In short, the repercussions of rising perfectionism range from emotionally painful to literally deadly.

Illustration: Harriet Lee Merrion. Via The Guardian.