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Perfectionism: the perfect route to depression

Perfectionism: the perfect route to depression

Perfectionism, in a nutshell, involves measuring everything you do against standards that don’t exist. Unfortunately, when these standards don’t get met its usually followed by a wave of disappointment, self-criticism, frustration and regret which amalgamate to form depression. This can stick around for a while stripping you of your motivation and sense of hope and often creating more and more perceived failures. The desire to do something amazingly well, and the need to relax and stop controlling its outcome, is a familiar place for me. I’ve felt this perfectionistic pull many times and at its core, it centers around my need to be approved of, to be deemed to be good enough – either by other people or by that perfectionistic part of myself.

It is very human to want to be approved of. Perfectionism involves a pervasive, deeply felt, and constant need for approval. Sometimes this desire has been buried and isn’t directly apparent anymore. However, underneath almost all perfectionism is a strong need for people to approve, which translates over time into very high internal standards. Perfectionists believe others are always judging them and can come to treat themselves in the same harsh, judgmental way.

As soon as we crave approval, or long to be good enough, we are teeing ourselves up for depression. We either end up without response we were after which sends us and our mood crashing, or we get the approval we crave but the positive effects don’t last long. In the latter situation, doing well becomes like a drug and our lives become devoted to getting ‘the hit’ of approval from your boss, your family, or your partner.

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Just like a drug, after a while you need to do more and more to feel okay. By seeking approval we dig an unfillable hole that tends to get bigger as time goes on. The link between perfectionism and depression has been recognized clinically, as well as by perfectionists themselves, their friends and their family.

In 2007, a study was completed with the friends and family members of people who had recently killed themselves. Without being asked about it directly, more than half of the people who killed themselves were described as “perfectionists” by their loved ones. The world can simply become too difficult to navigate if you always need things to be perfect.

Here are 4 reasons that perfectionism and depression are linked, and some ways that you can help yourself out of the perfectionist cycle.

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The devil is in the details

Perfectionism usually involves thinking through and doing things in great detail. A perfectionist can become very specific and sometimes fixated on one area of a task or plan. Try to zoom out from time to time. Actively think about the context of what you’re doing, and remind yourself where that task falls in the grand scheme of things. Reflect on whether it is going to be something you think about on your deathbed in order to try to gain some perspective.

You are not what you do

Within perfectionism, mistakes can become misunderstood as signs of a fundamental flaw. Failed tasks become personal failures and criticisms become personal attacks. This is problematic because failure is an inherent part of life and learning. Try not to let failure be a trigger for depression. Try to separate yourself from the things that you do. Begin to see them as external tasks, not an opportunity to show who or how you are as a person.

This is a process that involves re-building part of your identity. As a perfectionist, it’s likely that doing things well has become part of who you are. It may influence all of your daily actions to some extent. Moving away from this mental pattern may leave you feeling lost or empty. Introduce new mental habits, build an interest in other ways to seek fulfillment. Focus on your need to be cared for and find ways to care for yourself.  Where possible, do things to express yourself not to explain yourself. Talk to yourself kindly and turn the volume down on your critical thoughts.

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Flexibility flattens perfectionism

Depression thrives in an all or nothing environment, as does perfectionism. Both are ruled by strict unbending rules and internally perpetuated standards. Perfectionists approach the world with a black and white view, seeing things as right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or useless. Introducing flexibility of thought and approach will dampen perfectionism. It’s very difficult to do this if you naturally see either end of the spectrum and nothing much in-between.

To help yourself with this try to see everything sitting on a spectrum. Everything we do, from tasks to behaviors to what we say, can be put on its own spectrum. One end of each spectrum involves something being done very badly, at the other end it’s done perfectly, and then there is the vast and lovely in-between area. The ‘good enough’ section is the section that, while uncomfortable at first, will help you avoid years of depressive slumps and being held captive by standards that don’t need to be there. Allow yourself to aim for the middle but be flexible with sliding up and down the spectrum from time to time.

Trust yourself

A lack of trust and belief in yourself often underpins perfectionism. Trusting yourself involves feeling that you are innately okay and that you will make sound decisions. It also involves recognizing that if you don’t make a good decision it won’t matter that much. If you don’t trust yourself then procrastination, second guessing, depression, and anxiety are never far behind. Trust that something is right when you feel like it’s finished. Trust that you finished it when you needed to. You don’t need to be told that you’ve done your best because you can trust that you will always do your best. Know that you can’t always get it right, but you can always aim for ‘good enough.’

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Featured photo credit: Volkan Olmez Unsplash via unsplash.com

More by this author

Sian Morgan-Crossley

Psychotherapist and Coach

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Last Updated on April 7, 2020

4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

How many opportunities have you missed because of a bad mood or being stuck in feelings of frustration?

I know I’ve certainly missed a lot. In fact, I can recall an exact time when I missed a great deal of opportunity. I was at a party filled with highly influential people. However, my girlfriend and I had just gotten into an argument because of my irrational expectations of how she would behave, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t have any desire to talk to anyone or be open to interesting conversations. All I could think about was myself and my anger and frustration. I was caught up in this story; I was telling myself that I needed to be angry and I needed to show it. I can only imagine the opportunities I missed because I wasn’t flexible in my thinking.

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The mindset you need, then, is one of flexibility and not rigidity. You must be able to go with the flow of events without being disappointed by your expectations. This open-minded approach is a necessity if you want to be happy and experience rapid personal growth. These four ways below will tell you how to develop a flexible mindset.

1. See the feeling for what it is and accept it.

When you begin to notice yourself feeling frustration and anger, use that as a trigger to pause for a moment. See the feeling and sit with it. Don’t act, but stop and accept that you’re feeling this way. Understand that this feeling is just that ‒ a feeling. It’s not who you are, but merely a passing cloud in a sky full of clouds holding different feelings.

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2. Know that it’s OK to feel frustration and rigidity.

It happens to everyone. No one is perfect or immune to anger. It’s OK to feel this way. Give the feeling some space and compassion. It’s impossible to feel thankful and angry at the same time. By giving this feeling ‘some love’, you’re improving your mood and making it easier to come back to happiness. If you think of the feeling as a cloud, imagine opening up the sky and giving it the room to float away.

3. Notice what’s around you ― and breathe.

The key is to be in the moment. Too often we’re caught up in life and it whizzes by without us ever realizing it. Sit back, relax, and focus on your breathe for a bit. Feel it go in your nose, down your throat, into your stomach, and back out again. If you imagine your frustration as a thermometer, the more frustrated you are, the more it fills up. You need to give yourself time to allow it to cool off and that level to go down. Then, look around and be thankful for everything you see.

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4. Realize it’s OK to say, “I don’t know”.

It’s OK to not know how things should be. It’s also OK to not know how things are now. Not knowing sets you up to be able to freely investigate. Why are things this way? What series of events took place that caused this feeling? What unreasonable expectations did I have that put me in this place? Once you understand, you can fully let go and change your course going forward.

I hope these four steps help you let go of your rigid mindset and develop the flexibility to be happy and to experience personal growth. This shift in mindset will stop life from giving you lemons to make lemonade and start giving you whatever you desire. Just remember to pause, breathe, embrace, let go, and move on.

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