Writer and activist Melanie Curtin says she was "far more disappointed than was healthy" when she made it out of her twenties without making the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. "And it wasn't about the recognition — it was the shame of feeling like I haven't done enough with my life ... and that time is running out," she wrote.
Curious as to whether this was common, a short poll of 300 millennials she conducted soon proved that she wasn't the only one. In fact, recent research attests to this. In a study to measure self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfection in tertiary students from 1989 to 2016, it found that modern-day students displayed more characteristics of perfectionism, with the most drastic increase attributed to perceived social expectations.
"Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth," said lead author Thomas Curran.
But this can come at a mental-health price. The study stated increases in psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety that can be linked to perfectionism, which is a "core vulnerability to a variety of disorders, symptoms, and syndromes".
Curtin also made a similar observation in her millennial poll, there was "an overall mood of anxiety and self-reproach".
"We could run the risk of suffering from depression and anxiety as a result of the continued pressure to succeed," said Tony de Gouveia, a local clinical psychologist at Akeso Clinic, Alberton. "When we fail in a particular project or event, this invariably affects our sense of self-esteem. As a result, we tend to perceive ourselves – our person – as failures, rather than limiting the feeling of failure to a specific disappointment in our lives. Over time this can develop into depression and anxiety."
The main problem, he pointed out, is the sense that we have not met or lived up to expectations – our own and those of others – which then bothers us to the point of disturbing our mental state and our sense of balance.
These feelings of inadequacy can cripple us psychologically, "to the extent that we experience a sense of learned helplessness", he said, which can lead to major depression.
Depression is a very serious mental-health condition affecting at least 300-million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). When long-lasting, and with moderate or severe intensity, depression can cause the affected person to suffer greatly and function poorly at work, at school and in the family. At its worst, it can lead to suicide. WHO research shows that close to 800,000 people die by suicide as a result of depression every year.Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds.
There's help available
1. Own race, own pace
Social comparison can exacerbate feelings of failure – when we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others.As a result, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others in terms of attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, success and other factors.
This can happen at various life stages and is affected by events such as career milestones, unemployment, marriage and parenthood, all of which can create scenarios where people may see themselves as failures because they haven't succeeded in meeting the socially accepted criteria for success at each of these life stages.
"The problem is that we invariably compare apples with pears and perceive ourselves to be falling short, even when we don't have all the information needed to do the comparison accurately or realistically," said de Gouveia.
But it's important to constantly remind yourself that the pace of our lives and achievements is different and happens at different intervals for reasons sometimes not known to us.
2. Overcome self-limiting beliefs
The first step is to acknowledge that beliefs are changeable. "We can start by changing the way we view failure," said de Gouveia. "Viewing it not as a 'bad' occurrence in life but as part and parcel of the learning process – and seeing it as an integral step on the road to success – is a far more positive and productive approach."
Essentially the key coping mechanism we need to learn, de Gouveia advised, is perseverance, which is a key characteristic of resilience — the ability to bounce back. It means finding the strength and courage to push past the setbacks in daily life until we finally succeed. It's about learning to value yourself.
3. Seek professional help
The decision to seek professional help is typically not an easy one. However, noted de Gouveia, if you experience a sense of learned helplessness, where you have given up and have fallen into clinical or major depression as a result of a repeated sense of failure, you need to seek help from a trained mental healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. This is important because depression can, in turn, lead to more stress and dysfunction and worsen your life situation and the depression itself.
"There are effective psychological treatments for depression, and there is no need for anyone to feel alone. The first step towards recovery is to seek help", he concluded.
If you need help, here are some organisations that offer mental healthcare assistance free:
1. Hope House Counselling Centre offers counselling to everybody from the age of three and up. It also runs substance-abuse prevention and intervention programmes in schools across Western Cape. Contact them on 021 715 0424.
2. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) offers free and confidential counselling. Their 24-hour helpline is 0800 12 13 14.
3. Sadag's Suicide Crisis Line is 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393.
3. Lifeline offers 24-hour counselling, and they can appoint you a counsellor to meet face-to-face. Reachable on 0861 322 322.