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The Millennial burden of perfectionism

February 25, 2019   5 mins

“Deleting this account cos it’s holding me back.”

About a year ago, a friend of mine posted on her four-year-old Instagram account for the last time. Then, a week later, she made a new one. The bio for this account reads: “All my bits”.

Curious, I asked her why she’d felt the need to start from scratch. “I guess the old account made me feel like I had to conform to this outdated/limited version of myself, like not just online but in actual life,” she replied, almost instantly.

Her words came back to me earlier this month, while reading comments Zadie Smith made at Hay Cartagena (the famous Welsh literary festival’s Colombian cousin):

“We are being asked to be consistent as humans over great swathes of time. People are searching through social media. But everyone is changing all the time.”

Social media has turned our identities into brands; and brands must be meticulously consistent in order to make people like and trust them. One of the best ways to discredit a politician, celebrity or academic is to use their Twitter history against them: remember the striking anti-Brexit billboard campaign? It used screenshots of tweets from key figures, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, to expose their hypocrisy. People really “are searching through social media” every day to try and hoist influential people by their own petard.

It is, of course, important to hold high-profile people to account, but this climate in which our own words are so often used against us is enough to make anyone nervous – even when we don’t make a living from our ‘brands’.

And absolute consistency online is reinforced by the praise we receive for delivering content that’s in keeping with the impression other people have of us – an impression they’ve got from our previous posts. ‘On-brand’ has become a real-life compliment: if I ask a friend what she thinks of my new lipstick and she replies, ‘very on-brand’, this roughly translates as ‘I like it, it suits you, you should wear it again’.

But – as Smith recognised – perpetually conforming with past iterations of yourself can hold you back.

In literature and in life, Smith is obsessed with how necessarily plural, irreducible and paradoxical individuals can be. The introduction of her first essay collection – aptly titled Changing my Mind – announced that, “Ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith.

She’s not the only one. Psychologists widely recognise that the path to fulfilment requires constant re-evaluation and re-adjustment of one’s priorities, beliefs and image. And these processes are particularly important for the most voracious users of social media: the young.

Coming-of-age is meant to involve experimentation. Teenagers are meant to reject their former selves – which is hard when you’re constantly reminded of who you were by ‘on this day four years ago’ notifications. When you’re trying to work out what kind of person you want to be, you need time to passionately commit to a new image here, a radical movement there.

But, as Alexis Petridis lamented in the Guardian a few years ago, youth subcultures have vanished. “Mods, punks, soulboys, metallers, goths, hippies” are all endangered breeds. “There’s something oddly self-conscious and non-committal about” the way young people engage with cultural movements nowadays, he reflects.

My peers and I – born in the mid-90s – were the first people to come of age in the social media era. During our schooldays, we were taught that an online photo of us dressed inappropriately in 2010 could cost us a job in 2018. We were conscious that if we got drunk and silly selfies were taken, we might end up tagged in the photos on Facebook days later. We knew, when we entered the job market, that our potential employers would scroll through our Twitter accounts to check they’re consistent with what we’ve expressed in our cover letters. We’re haunted by the idea of being proved inconsistent in plain sight.

It’s no surprise, really. Human beings are inherently prone to what psychologists call ‘consistency bias’ – which Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman describes as, “the well-studied way we’ll retroactively adjust our attitudes to avoid admitting to being changeable”. We want to believe that we’re stable, in an unstable world. Social media appeals to – and exploits – this tendency: it enables us to go back and erase the bits of our identity that we think don’t fit, because they’re too ugly, embarrassing or incompatible to exist within the confines of our self-image.

Now, kids are so acutely averse to posting anything permanent that they prefer fleeting snapchats to lasting Facebook posts. Even as they document new hair-cuts, old friendships and vague observations, they know they don’t want that evidence to last; they’re aware that it’ll become cringe-y soon enough.

Don’t mistake this fear of commitment for the healthy, necessary rejection of a former self – the archetypal coming-of-age narrative. Forming an identity requires you to invest in your experiments. Teenagers need space to try an image on for size without the fear of being judged by others – or indeed their future selves. Constantly surveyed by social media, many young people don’t dare subscribe to anything, even – or perhaps especially – temporarily.

And this is having a profound effect.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recently found that there has been a sharp rise in perfectionism among young adults since the dawn of the internet age. Their study involved over 40,000 university students – on both sides of the Atlantic – who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. This survey asks individuals to indicate the extent to which they agree with statements like, ‘When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect’.

The study found that between 1989 and 2016, there was a 10% increase in ‘self-oriented perfectionism’–when people have unrealistically high expectations of themselves. In the same time period, there was a massive 32% increase in ‘socially prescribed perfectionism’ – when people believe they have to be perfect in order to live up to the expectations of others.

These increases are disturbing. As young people strive to be consistent with their own and others’ ideas of who they should be, their inevitable failure has a terrible effect on their mental health. Perfectionism is associated with, for example, clinical depression, anorexia nervosa and suicide ideation; in recent years, multiple reports have shown that these conditions are on the rise among teenagers and young adults.

According to the APA’s study, socially prescribed perfectionism – the kind that’s seen the biggest increase – “is the most debilitating”, “because the perceived expectations of others are experienced as excessive, uncontrollable, and unfair.” In other words, these expectations make people feel powerless, limited and held back.

Which is exactly how my friend described feeling while using her four-year-old Instagram account.

The APA report mentions social media as a force that encourages people to present an idealised image of themselves; what it doesn’t mention is that social media demands not only a perfect image but a perfectly consistent personal brand – an altogether more overwhelming pressure.

We need to be cognisant of how social media promotes socially prescribed perfectionism. Young people have never felt more out-of-control: everything from the state of the job market to the housing crisis makes us feel as though we can’t move forward materially. Meanwhile, the online profiles we so carefully curate make us feel as though we can’t move forward mentally.

Our formative years are supposed to be a time for growth and development – a time to build a solid sense of self. If young people increasingly feel as though we can’t deviate, take risks or make mistakes – if we’re obsessed with editing and conforming with our past selves – we can’t progress.

Millennials are roundly mocked for being seemingly unable to grow up. But how can we, when we feel like the world’s demanding that we stay the same?

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