Perfectionism is nothing new. We all know people, maybe even ourselves, who identify as perfectionists. The desire to look perfect, perform perfectly, or be viewed by others as perfect—to be “like God”—is a common struggle, with roots all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Even so, according to researchers, perfectionism is on the rise.1 I see it myself in the counseling room.
The struggle may be amplified among teens and young adults, but they’re not alone. At higher rates than previously seen, perfectionism is affecting younger children and pre-teens. In fact, researchers say pervasive perfectionism, especially in Western culture, is increasingly problematic for people of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds.2
With such widespread uptick it appears parents and children are all in the same boat, which had me curious about the common threads of perfectionism we parents might share with our teens.
And like any struggle, if we fail to identity the root, we will only reach for bandaid solutions that never reach the heart of the problem.
Perfectionism’s Rise, Our Demise
As you might speculate, the growing problem of perfectionism goes hand in hand with the societal pressure to perform. And, yes, social media is a huge culprit. From little squares on Instagram, flawless people in beautiful surroundings seem to live their best lives.
Of course, this isn’t the full story, just as social media isn’t the end of the story. But the images are enough to lead us down a path of lies. Lies that tell us we need to be better—perfect—in every realm.
So, we strive after capturing the adoration of the masses, believing that will make us worthy and that we will be enough. Logically, we may know the fallacy of this thinking and even agree that those little squares don’t tell the full truth.
Still, the master Deceiver has been perfecting his craft for all eternity.
For children, teens, and young adults (but adults are not exempt!), the metrics of tracking perfection are not limited to the likes, follows, shares, and streaks of social media platforms. From test scores, GPAs, class rank, clothing size, calories, number of steps, athletic performance, even ranked levels for kids’ sports teams, dance, and cheer squads, our young people are assigned a numerical value for just about everything they do.
As a result, they are always aware of where they stand and how everyone else fares too. Clearly the pressure to be perfect comes from within and without.
To help us understand the sources of perfectionism, psychologists have identified three forms of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented.
Self-oriented perfectionism is the self-imposed demand to measure up to some allusive, ever-changing standard. It is the honors student terrified of doing poorly on a test who must get an “A.”
Socially prescribed perfectionism stems from the belief that the world requires perfection of us. It is the people-pleaser who says yes out of fear of letting someone down.
Others-oriented perfectionism is the opposite: holding others to unrealistic expectations. It is the student with no tolerance of a group member’s mistake, the coach who berates his player over an error, and the parent who demands a child’s perfect performance.
As these three forms of perfectionism intersect, I’m led to believe parents, more influenced today by socially prescribed perfectionism, buy into the lie that we must be the perfect parent with the perfect children, which in turn leads to increased self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism.
With our own perfectionistic tendencies, we add to the pressure our children feel on a daily basis. And, like our children experience, our own struggles with perfectionism lead to feelings of shame and failure, which perpetuate the cycle.
In counseling we are seeing that low self-worth, anxiety, depression, anger, and shame often trace back to the quest for perfectionism. So what now?
His Perfection, Not Ours
As a counselor, I frequently work with clients on countering the false beliefs surrounding their need to be perfect. Cognitive restructuring can be helpful, for example.
And yet as Christians, we have a more sure and complete hope. This is where theology matters in our daily lives. Specifically here, the doctrine of justification.
For those who trust in Christ, justification is the one-time act when Jesus exchanged his perfect, righteous life for our sin so we could be declared right with God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Absolutely everything needed for us to be stamped, “Approved,” “Worthy,” Perfect” was accomplished by Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross. Because this is true, we have God’s perpetual smile. We are at peace with God (Rom. 5:1). There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more worthy.
When we fall prey to Satan’s lies convincing us otherwise, we forget or negate the work Christ has already declared “finished.” We act as if what he did was not enough. We place more value on our own performance than his.
The answer then to perfectionism is not working harder but resting in Jesus’ work and worth. Our perfection—our identity and worth—is found in his. Whether or not we or our children achieve certain goals, are honored or noticed for our accomplishments, or perfectly excel at anything are not what gives us value. We are not a good parent because of what we or our children do!
In the same manner, our mistakes and failure, our sin, do not discount our perfect standing before God. Living as if they do ensnares us to the idolatry of seeking to be like god. But if in Christ we are perfect because Jesus was perfect for us, he is the ultimate, and only, true solution to our endless striving after perfection.
Therefore, as moms and dads, and for our teenagers, may the implications of our justified standing work their way into our hearts in such a way that we are no longer enslaved to skewed views about ourselves, the opinion of others, or the world’s demands.
For a secure, unshakeable identity is found only in the unblemished and perfect Lamb of God.
- Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429.
- Patterson, H., Firebaugh, C.M., Zolnikov, T.R., Wardlow, R., Morgan, S.M., Gordon, B. (2021). A Systematic Review on the Psychological Effects of Perfectionism and Accompanying Treatment. Psychology, 12 (1).