“Self-oriented perfectionism is the tendency to hold oneself to an unrealistically high standard, while other-oriented perfectionism means having unrealistic expectations of others. But “socially prescribed perfectionism is the most debilitating of the three dimensions of perfectionism,” Curran and Hall contend. It describes the feeling of paranoia and anxiety engendered by the persistent — and not entirely unfounded — sensation that everyone is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can write you off forever. This hyper-perception of others’ impossible expectations causes social alienation, neurotic self-examination, feelings of shame and unworthiness, and “a sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation, characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure.

In an attempt to gauge how culturally contingent the phenomenon of perfectionism is, Curran and Hall performed a meta-analysis of available psychological data, looking for generational trends. They found that people born in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada after 1989 scored much higher than previous generations for all three kinds of perfectionism, and that scores increased linearly over time. The dimension that saw the most dramatic change was socially prescribed perfectionism, which increased at twice the rate of the other two. In other words, young people’s feeling of being judged harshly by their peers and the broader culture is intensifying with each passing year.

Curran and Hall attribute this change to the rise of neoliberalism and its cousin meritocracy. Neoliberalism favors market-based methods of assigning worth to commodities — and it designates everything it can as a commodity. Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal political-economic regimes have systematically replaced things like public ownership and collective bargaining with deregulation and privatization, promoting the individual over the group in the very fabric of society. Meanwhile, meritocracy — the idea that social and professional status are the direct outcomes of individual intelligence, virtue, and hard work — convinces isolated individuals that failure to ascend is a sign of inherent worthlessness.

Neoliberal meritocracy, the authors suggest, has created a cutthroat environment in which every person is their own brand ambassador, the sole spokesman for their product (themselves) and broker of their own labor, in an endless sea of competition. As Curran and Hall observe, this state of affairs “places a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the center of modern life,” far more so than in previous generations.”

I just had to quote Meagan Day’s recent article at length above because I resonated so much with it. Reading Day’s article I was reminded of something Voyou Désœuvré wrote: “One of the problems with capitalism is that it produces mediocrity but also renders that mediocrity unsustainable: capitalism needs average workers, but capitalist ideology insists that only the exceptional deserve the rewards that would allow them to live a decent life.”

This talk of “socially prescribed perfectionism” also brought to mind psychologist, Richard Beck’s, astute observations that continuous improvement, or striving toward excellence (which most workplaces want their employees to do ((e.g. yearly performance reviews, goal setting, etc.))), “presupposes a false anthropology as it assumes that we are gods and not human beings.”

Illustration above: Cei Willis

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