‘Perfectionists need to learn to have fun’

Many young people are perfectionists. This could be a disadvantage, writes behavioural scientist Jaap van der Stel in his book ‘Perfectionisme’. “You can protect yourself.”

‘Universities realise that they are not only educational factories, but that they should also be watchful for the welfare of their students.’ (Photo: Thomas Zwart)

Jaap van der Stel is a lector in mental health care at the Leiden University of Applied Sciences and senior researcher at the inGeest-VUmc mental health care institute. His book is only available in Dutch, but his message is relevant for international students as well.

Why are millennials such perfectionists?
“An international study shows that the pressure exerted by society to be perfect as experienced by 20 year olds has increased by 33% over the last 30 years. There are three reasons for this. One of these is that millennials – people born between 1980 and 2000 – are facing the consequences of globalisation. The world has no more borders. For example, my son applied for a PhD position at the University of Utrecht with graduates from China. Everyone wants the best people so the standards become ever higher and seldom lower. If you want to achieve something, you need to compete with the whole world. This sounds great, but in effect, in practice, it means that a high standard has become the norm.”

“Another factor is that we live in a neoliberal meritocracy in which you are judged on your achievements and where there is far less security such as permanent jobs. Insecurities breed perfectionism.”

How do you recognise a perfectionist?
“Perfectionists often display procrastination behaviour, set high standards for themselves and are not able to accept their own mistakes. This becomes a problem if a high external standard is placed on them and they are unable to meet it. Perfectionism then becomes a source of frustration and fatigue. You have a constant voice in your head that asks ‘what do my parents, teachers, friends think of me?’”

‘I’m cautious about giving tips’

Perfectionism is frequently linked to burnout, depressed feelings and fear and obsessive disorders. Is that right?
“We often see that people with eating disorders are perfectionists and that perfectionism is often linked to depression. But that does not mean that it is the cause. Scientists see a link, but whoever proves how it works can go to Norway and get the Nobel Prize. By the way, we should not wait and see but take action now to deal with growing perfectionism among young people”

The growing pressure to perform is turning students into perfectionists. Are universities of applied sciences and universities doing anything about it?
“Universities of applied sciences and universities are paying a lot of attention to the level of pressure there is to perform. They realise that they are not only educational factories, but that they should also be watchful for the welfare of their students. You see initiatives starting to emerge such as workshops and lectures to help students see the importance of their mental and physical health.”

Do they help?
“It’s too early to say. The rise in perfectionism among young people is not a straight line. I am hopeful that millennials themselves will find solutions for the issues of our time. I believe that today’s young people are a lot stronger and more resilient than my generation was at their age.”

Is there anything you can do to deal with perfectionism?
“I’m always cautious about giving tips as they only work if you are looking for them. But what is crucial is to learn to look at yourself from a distance. One thing you can do is to write down your thoughts and feelings. Think about why you do not feel comfortable with what you are doing. A good coach can help this process.”

“Apart from this, it is important to set out your goals clearly and precisely in attainable steps. Do not chase your goal too rigidly as it should not turn into the sword of Damocles. Striving for a high standard is fine if you are able to handle it in a relaxed manner and accept that sometimes things just do not work out. And my last bit of advice is to have fun. Pleasure is the best protection from the trap of perfectionism.”

HOP, Oscarine Vonk

Jaap van der Stel “I am hopeful that millennials themselves will find solutions for the issues of our time.” (Photo: Ria Teeuw)

Perfectionisme, Jaap van der Stel, Uitgeverij SWP, 128 blz. € 23,-.


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