Advertising

Perfectionism: the perfect route to depression

Advertising
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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.’

Advertising

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

Trending in Brain

1 How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly 2 11 Essential Philosophy Books That Will Open Your Mind 3 4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset 4 What Is Creative Thinking and Why Is It Important? 5 How Systems Thinking Makes You a Smarter Person

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Advertising
How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

Advertising

After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

Advertising

Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

Advertising

Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

Advertising

Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

Read Next