Millennials are often described as entitled with unrealistic expectations regarding their career. They have been referred to as lazy, hyper image-conscious, narcissistic and depressed about a life of mediocrity. Are the labels and negative stereotypes given to Millennials perpetuated by envious baby boomers? Possibly. Nonetheless there is some research coinciding with the typical Millennial labels that are thought-provoking. For example, the majority of middle school girls polled in 2007 would rather be an assistant to a celebrity than a senator or a CEO. According to a study conducted in 2009 by the Institute of National Health, college students had a 58% increase in narcissism in comparison students assessed in 1982 (Time, 5/20/2013).
I have seen a substantial portion of Millennial patients in my private practice. My observation about Millennials is that some have narcissism, but they equally appear to be perfectionistic. Perfectionism is when individuals have excessive and rigid goals regarding either self-accomplishments or excessive social expectations of themselves or others.
Having high expectations is not necessarily maladaptive, but the self-punishment and fear of not meeting your own or other’s expectations can be. Feeling like life is not worth living due to a failed interview or relationship can be an experience a perfectionist may encounter. Perfectionism can lead to many disorders such as eating disorders, OCD, depression and social anxiety. Several studies indicate that maladaptive perfectionism is associated with narcissism. A Millennial with caretakers who provide conditional love and have perfectionist tendencies can be prone to narcissism.
In spite of the amount of perfectionism I’ve seen with Millennials, very few articles and research have focused on exploring the connection between Millennials and perfectionism. In general there are few resources on how to treat perfectionists in the therapy situation and that is one reason why I wrote my book on treating perfectionism.
Some of the challenges I experience working with perfectionists is their reluctance to show weakness and desire to portray a positive image. This can cause perfectionists to conceal their concerns. Wanting to be the perfect patient, they may praise the therapist and avoid their true feelings. In other circumstances, a perfectionist’s extreme personal standards may parallel his or her expectations of a therapist. The therapist is destined to fall short and not be good enough. In therapy with them it is often fascinating to explore how the dynamics they experience with me often parallel intimate relationships and career issues. This is a topic that I explore in more depth in my book.
As therapists, supervisors and parents of Millennial perfectionists I believe we should strive to recognize their creativity and intelligence and help them hold on to their high goals, but be less punitive if they fall short and instead, help them accept themselves.