York U professor co-authors first-ever academic book on perfectionism in young people

A youth sits bereft against a stone wall

Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Approach, a book co-authored by Psychology Professor Gordon L. Flett, builds on 30 years of research in a field that the authors helped pioneer.

When a person self-describes as a “perfectionist,” we might assume they mean they have an exacting personality, one who sets and pursues high standards.

But perfectionism can also be main source of anxiety, depression, burnout and relationship problems. Sufferers live according to impossibly high standards – those they set for themselves and those they believe are imposed on them – that cut across all aspects of their lives.   

This growing problem, which has immense public health implications, especially among young people, is the subject of a new book, Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Approach, published March 8 by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Approach: Flett  PhD, Dr. Gordon L., Hewitt R. Psych., Prof. Paul L.: 9781433833090:  Amazon.com: Books

Co-authored by Flett and University of British Columbia clinical psychology professor Paul Hewitt, Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence is the first-ever academic book on perfectionism among non-adults. It contains a broad summary of research developments over the previous several decades and offers practical observations that can benefit those who live with or care for perfectionistic young people.

The authors have previously written that perfectionism constitutes “a problem in living” among those with a chronic sense of expecting, or being expected to, live up to impossible standards. 

“When we talk about perfectionism, we’re not just talking about a healthy pursuit of excellence,” says Flett, a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Psychology within the Faculty of Health. “We’re talking about an irrational importance placed on perfection across all areas of a person’s life. Perfectionists, the children and adolescents we studied for this book, can never succeed, because they can never be perfect. For them, being almost perfect is as bad as anything. And even if they were perfect, they can say ‘I shouldn’t have had to try so hard.’

“Perfectionism is exacting an enormous toll, on individuals and society, that far outweighs any limited benefits that perfectionism may produce. And it’s hitting our young people at a time when they are especially vulnerable.”

Flett, a member and former director of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York, describes the book as a comprehensive overview of a field that the authors helped pioneer in the early 1990s when their collaboration began. Since then, Flett says, our technology-suffused world has become much more conducive to producing dangerous perfectionistic tendencies in young people.

“Perfectionism is in part a function of social comparison, and social media, for example, has created infinite opportunities for social comparison,” he says. “It’s a very vicious cycle, comparing oneself with others who’ve mastered the image of projecting perfection. It’s easy for a child or adolescent to forget that what they’re seeing onscreen is a total façade.”

The book takes a “person-centred approach” that aims to demystify the subject of clinical perfectionism for the benefit of general readers – i.e. parents, caregivers and educators – who are “desperate for insight into how to help their children survive and thrive under the weight of the pressure to be perfect.”

“Perfectionism can be studied as a personality construct in the usual academic ways, but we are not simply describing variables,” Flett says. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to make life better for the people who struggle with perfectionism as well as the people in their lives who find themselves ‘in the crosshairs’ and are targets of this perfectionism.”

To that end, Flett and Hewitt have already begun work on a follow-up book, a LifeTools manual for parents of perfectionistic children, to be published by the APA in 2023.

The book is available online.