A study by the American Psychological Association recently suggested a dramatic rise in the phenomena from 1980-2016. The study was conducted by Thomas Curran PhD of University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, PhD, of York St. John University and analyzed data from 41,641 college students from Canada, England, and the United States, using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale.

The study measured three different types of perfectionism: “self-oriented,” or the personal drive to be unrealistically perfect, “socially” prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectation from others, or “other-oriented,” or placing unrealistic expectations on others. Between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented perfectionism score increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed increased by 33 percent and other-oriented increased by 16 percent.

Curran and Hill speculated that the results may be due to the increasingly meritocracy fostered by universities, as the institutions encourage competition among students, causing unrealistic educational and professional expectations for them.

While these results are notable, to a high school teacher, they are hardly shocking. There is an increasing demographic of students who are obsessed with bottom-line results, and in the absence of the ability to achieve them organically, face overwhelming anxiety, depression and despair. The uncertainties of the Covid era of education have done little to quell these festering doubts for students.

As educators and mentors, it is our duty to set realistic expectations for students, particular for those who are more sensitive to expectations and who tend to reflect more harshly on their own efforts. Sometimes this means negotiating these internal factors with the harsh realities of their world. But a student stuck in fight-or-flight mode doesn’t get very far in this new world.