The overachieving generation: As millennials strive for perfection, anxiety and depression increase

Chronic procrastination and elaborate to-do lists can be signs of perfectionism. Dreamstime

CHICAGO — When he was in eighth grade, Benjamin Cherkasky quit the swim team.

He loved swimming. But he wasn't winning every time, and he felt he should already be an Olympic-like talent.

"I'm not Michael Phelps at swimming, so why am I even on the team?" he remembers thinking.

A therapist who researches perfectionism at Northwestern University's Family Institute, he realized years later what had happened. His perfectionism was creating unrealistic standards, and unable to meet them, he quit. This continued throughout college.

"My perfectionism is very high expectations, and fantasylike and not realistic expectations, that caused real suffering and real anxiety," he said.

Cherkasky is not alone in feeling a perfectionism that can breed anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

So many millennials are suffering from the ills of perfectionism that psychologists are issuing warnings and schools are emphasizing the need to both strive and accept failure.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, Northwestern held its first event on the topic, aimed at educating students that perfectionism can be poisonous and giving tips and tactics to help.

Jessica Rohlfing Pryor, a Family Institute staff psychologist leading the event, said every generation is a sponge for messages it receives.

"I would argue that millennials more than any other generation in American society are receiving very strong explicit messages around achieving," she said. "There's an absence of messaging that trying your hardest is still OK."

Chronic procrastination and elaborate to-do lists can be signs of perfectionism — and potentially darker issues.

This January, the American Psychological Association reported that recent generations of college students have reported higher levels of perfectionism than earlier generations.

This "irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others" takes a toll on young people's mental health, according to its research, which analyzed data from more than 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students. Three types of perfectionism were measured: an irrational personal desire to be perfect, perceiving excessive expectations from others, and placing unrealistic standards on others.

Recent generations of college students have reported significantly higher scores for each of these types of perfectionism than earlier generations, the researchers found.

People affected could be in both the millennial generation and Gen Z. Rohlfing Pryor noted that data have been collected from more than 200 studies, not all of which defined these two groups the same way. So although more than one age group was studied, she has found perfectionism to be particularly prevalent in university students, including both undergraduate and graduate students.

Researchers noted that social media adds comparison pressure, along with the drive to earn money and set lofty career goals. Often, perfectionists create even higher goals, which lead to a higher risk of failure and perhaps more failures.

In college, Cherkasky found himself surrounded by many intelligent people and felt he should be smart enough to already understand his textbooks, to already have mastered whatever he was learning.

"It makes you feel kind of crazy," he said. "I felt like I should know every fact about the human brain without even going to class."

This type of thinking can lead to putting in less effort, which can create more anxiety as people fall behind, he noted. "It causes suffering, and it causes people to kind of be isolated, and causes people to detach from their work, from their school, from other people. And so these are all perfect nutrients for anxiety to grow."

Researchers also noted higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts recently in this age group than there were a decade ago.

Northwestern is not the only school eager to help its perfectionist students.

Brown University includes perfectionism in its counseling and psychological services, asking students if they ever feel that what they accomplish isn't good enough, or that they must give more than 100 percent to not be considered a failure.

Schools like the University of Texas and Harvard University note the difference between a "perfectionist" and a "healthy striver." Harvard provides examples such as someone who is preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval versus using anxiety and fear of failure to create energy; and someone who becomes overly defensive when criticized, versus someone who takes criticism in stride with perspective.

Rohlfing Pryor noted that Family Institute research shows perfectionists are less likely than peers to seek out resources. It's key that students see this as something they can get help with, she said, sooner rather than later.

"They end up going (to therapy) when things are much rougher than they could have been," she said.