Perfectionism and the Tyranny of Expectations

A growing number of media outlets have begun highlighting a concerning rise in adolescents’ and young adults’ feelings of emptiness and despair. Some articles have bemoaned the rise of “teacup kids.” Many others have pointed toward a growing suicide rate as evidence of a troubling trajectory.

This recent piece in the New York Times is a knockout, relaying the story of one young woman’s struggles with suicidal ideation, as a touchpoint to explore deeper issues of perfectionism, high expectations and the various pressures of social media. As the author notes:

Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). But a survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Many scholars have emphasized the winner-take-all culture of today’s college admissions as a precipitating factor in this trend, but it’s likely that the problem starts earlier, within families and school systems that prize achievement over fulfillment:

These observations echo those made by the psychologist Alice Miller in her seminal book for therapists, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self.” In the book, published in 1979 and translated into 30 languages, Ms. Miller documents how some especially intelligent and sensitive children can become so attuned to parents’ expectations that they do whatever it takes to fulfill those expectations — at the expense of their own feelings and needs. This can lead to emotional emptiness and isolation. “In what is described as depression and experienced as emptiness, futility, fear of impoverishment, and loneliness,” she wrote, “can usually be recognized as the tragic loss of the self in childhood.”

One of the bedrock missions of my Philadelphia psychotherapy practice is to help address the issue of pressure and its injuries, and to help performers, artists and professionals resolve the strong feelings that can result. Over the coming months, I’ll be writing more about the psychology of resentment that can bloom within “gifted” individuals, and how psychodynamic therapy can help to resolve many of the burdens that come with high expectations.