Kimberley D. Thompson, PhD examines how striving for perfection can exacerbate depression.
Depression-prone people often have poor coping skills when it comes to managing life stress. If you tend toward depression, you may not have many stress-management tools to rely upon, even if otherwise, you are highly intelligent and very competent. You probably do not know how to stop the spiral downward when life begins to spin out of control. When anxiety and fear become crushing weights, someone who is depression-prone doesn’t know how to make them stop (Ottenbreit et al., 2014).
You want to be perfect?
While striving for excellence can be a source of joy and fulfillment, striving to be perfect can be a source of frustration and discouragement. This is because there really is no such thing as “perfect.” There will always be another discovery to find, another invention to create, and another person who is just a little bit better. There will always be some way that you can improve upon your performance.
Perfectionism is at its most toxic in the form of socially prescribed perfectionism, or a deep sense that important other people expect perfection (Hill, Hall, & Appleton, 2011). This is especially true if you really want to please other people. You are likely very acutely and painfully aware of your own personal imperfection, which creates a double-bind of “I must be perfect” and “I can’t be perfect” (Thompson & Bendell, 2014). If you want to please one person, then it is also likely you want to please several, or many, people. Even more double-binds arise when those people have conflicting expectations. It’s no surprise that socially prescribed perfectionism is common in depression-prone women (e.g., Flett, Besser, Hewitt, & Davis, 2007).
A history of parental criticism and inconsistency, discussed in Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, can leave you feeling as if important other people expect too much, and that you can never be enough to satisfy (Enns, Cox, & Clara, 2002). If others expect perfection, and if you cannot be perfect, then you feel unworthy of respect, attention, love, and care. Perfectionistic demands from others may seem normal. You may believe that you are unworthy if you cannot figure out what is expected and fulfill those expectations perfectly. So you continually strive to be perfect, often becoming a high achiever. You were hoping success would make you happy, but instead, you suffer from intense anxiety. Or, perceiving that expecting perfection is unreasonable, you may give up and become a foot-dragger, procrastinator, and underachiever (Ottenbreit et al., 2014). If this is you, then you think that if you can just delay trying, or if you have an excuse for not trying very hard, then maybe it won’t hurt so much to fail (Steel, 2007).
This habitual way of being operates on an automatic, unconscious level. It is not a conscious choice that you make in the moment. The good news is that humans are not only equipped with an automatic, unconscious mind, but also with a conscious, deliberate mind. Just because you aren’t usually aware of the deep structures of your stable place within your own mind does not mean that you cannot become aware. This is good news! If you have become dissatisfied enough with the status quo, it is possible to shake it up. It is possible to insert more positive voices into the internal conversation, and to upset the balance of power so that negativity no longer reigns supreme.
Enns, M., Cox, B., & Clara, I. (2002). Parental bonding and adult psychopathology: Results from the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey. Psychological Medicine, 32(6), 997–100.
Flett, G. L., Besser, A., Hewitt, P. L., & Davis, R. A. (2007). Perfectionism, silencing the self, and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(5), 1211–1222. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.03.012
Hill, A. P., Hall, H. K., & Appleton, P. R. (2011). The relationship between multidimensional perfectionism and contingencies of self-worth. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 238–242. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.09.036
Ottenbreit, N. D., Dobson, K. S., & Quigley, L. (2014). An examination of avoidance in major depression in comparison to social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 56, 82–90. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2014.03.005
Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
Thompson, K. D., & Bendell, D. (2013). Depressive cognitions, maternal attitudes and postnatal depression. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 32(1), 70–82. doi:10.1080/02646838.2013.858312