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Perfectionism: the perfect route to depression

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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

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Sian Morgan-Crossley

Psychotherapist and Coach

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