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How Millennials Are Talking About Perfectionism, Pressure and Getting Help

The millennial generation seems to be doing something in our culture that other generations have stigmatized. What is that? They’re seeking therapy in much greater numbers.

There are multiple reasons why. They’re stressed-out, anxious about reaching even the same or better markers that their parents reached in their 20’s and 30’s, and fearing they’re not going to make a right choice. Sociologist Jean Twenge has great concerns about this generation, so heavily influenced by the latest recession, the constant stimulation of cell phones, social media and the resultant immediacy of communication and knowledge. They share strengths for sure. But they’re also more isolated and more depressed, and suicide rates are rising dramatically.

But they’re not just going to therapy. A few are fighting back against the expectation of the perfect-looking facade – the “I’ve got this down” attitude. Specific challenges are happening on some of our major elite college campuses, in protest of the marked increase in student suicides. The students themselves are confronting the unspoken message that you’re not supposed to struggle, appear lost or frustrated, or reveal that your studies are actually very difficult for you. After all, you’re a student at Stanford, or Penn. You’re above all that. You were smart enough to get in. It should be no sweat.

How are they challenging this myth? They’re putting a name to this kind of pressure. And they’re getting out the word to students who may be struggling.

Enter the Stanford Duck Syndrome and the Penn face. A member of the Stanford student news writes, “Everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly across this Lake College. But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.” A Penn student journalist writes, “The Penn Face is the pressure to always present yourself as if you have all of the pieces of your life in order. It’s the pressure to say you’re OK and act OK even when you don’t feel OK. Everyone reacts to the Penn Face differently – some adapt to it naturally, some spend all of finals week in their rooms to avoid it, and for many, it takes a serious toll on their mental health, stability and ability to cope.”

One such Penn Face was Maddy Holleran, track star and adored friend. Her life and suicide were the subject of the recent New York Times bestseller, “What Made Maddy Run?’ by Kate Fagan, as the author chronicled the pressure of collegiate sports, what Maddy showed the world, and what was the inner despair loved ones could piece together after her death.

I’ve heard more stories than I’d like that mimic this tragedy. One was about Ryan, a high school senior who seemed to have everything in place for his future but confided in a friend about secret thoughts of suicide. She emailed the high school. So, he was called to the office by the high school counselor who questioned him briefly, and then let him go. His parents were never alerted. Ryan hung himself a month later.

And how, I’ve written a book on just how to prevent such tragedies. Or at least try. I’m thrilled to announce its publication as of November 1st, 2019. Perfectly Hidden Depression is written for these students, as well as for the men and women who daily shroud their real selves in what might seem perfect to others. It’s a book for parents who may have buried their perfect-looking children and are searching for answers. It’s a book for doctors, teachers, counselors and therapists who need to raise their awareness that perfect seeming can be far from perfect.

I simply want to get it in the hands of people who don’t believe they could possibly be depressed, because their lives are too perfect-looking, their blessings too great. Because it’s a terrifically lonely place to be.

When you’re perfectly hidden.

How Millennials Are Talking About Perfectionism, Pressure and Getting Help

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments --

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2019). How Millennials Are Talking About Perfectionism, Pressure and Getting Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 31 Oct 2019
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