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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

The Problem With Wanting Life To Be Easy How to be heard as an introvert (whilst being yourself) Perfectionism: the perfect route to depression

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Last Updated on September 10, 2018

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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Exercise

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

Meditation

Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

Reference

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