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Science of Work

Study: Perfectionism is on the rise among millennials

There’s a growing majority of workers entering the workforce accepting nothing less than perfection. According to a new American Psychological Association study of 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college millennials, the number of young people who are identifying as perfectionists has increased substantially over the last 27 years.

The researchers found that college millennials who were surveyed between 1989 and 2016 tested higher in self-oriented perfectionism (where you tie your self-worth to your achievements), socially prescribed perfectionism (where you allow others’ expectations to dictate your own), and other-oriented perfectionism (where you demand people to rise up to meet your high standards).

“More recent generations of college students appear to be imposing more demanding and unrealistic standards on those around them than generations previous,” the study states. “We speculate that this may be because, generally, American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.”

While holding to yourself to a high standard can help you strive for success, perfectionism can also hold your career back when it becomes your only metric for success and satisfaction. Then perfectionism becomes an anxious fear or rejection and failure that prevents you from enjoying your career.

How to stop being an unhealthy perfectionist

To stop your unhealthy perfectionist impulses, you need to identify your self-defeating beliefs.

Perfectionists are often motivated by the limiting belief: “If I cannot do something perfectly, it’s not worth doing.” You believe that you won’t be respected at work if people find out that you’re a flawed human being. Your entire identity is tied to whether or not a project or meeting goes well.

Cognitive behavioral psychologist and therapist David D. Burns outlines how you can stop this anxiety from taking over your life in his book “When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life.”

Identify and revise self-defeating beliefs

Burns recommends writing down a cost-benefit analysis of all the ways perfectionism helps and hinders you. Your perfectionism plus column could include all the ways your colleagues admire your hardworking and conscientious attitude. Your minus column could include how people find you demanding, how you cannot stop worrying, and how you procrastinate on dreams if you believe you cannot get them done perfectly.

When you identify self-defeating beliefs in your writing — “If I make a mistake, everyone will hate me!” — try revising these anxious statements with ones that are weighted in reality, not fear. You could write down, as Burns suggests: “When I make a mistake or fall short of a goal, I don’t need to feel ashamed or worthless. There’s always room for improvement. I can decide to view my mistakes as opportunities for learning and personal growth.”

These cost-benefits analysis are one approach to help you separate irrational fears from real ones. By changing how you think, you can change how you feel.

“If you revise the belief in a thoughtful way, you can have your cake and eat it, too,” Burns writes. “You won’t have to give up anything you value or believe in. You’ll develop a more robust and realistic value system that won’t cave in on you when the going gets tough.”

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