Perfectionism and Depression

What is Perfectionism?

The term "Perfectionism" is attributed to people who pursue flawless work and set unrealistically high standards and goals for themselves. Perfectionists tend to be very critical of the work that they do – even when it's done well, they always manage to find a fault.

Of course, a small amount of perfectionism, or "adaptive perfectionism," is a good thing. Adaptive perfectionists have high standards, work with optimism and pleasure, and consistently desire to improve their knowledge and skills. Importantly, they know when to stop work and "ship" the finished product.

The negative form of this condition is called "maladaptive perfectionism." Maladaptive perfectionists often have a fear of failure. They're never completely satisfied with the work that they do, they're often unhappy or anxious, and they're obsessed with producing perfect work, even when it takes too long to deliver.

It's often easy to identify team members who are maladaptive perfectionists. If a team member's obsession with being "perfect" starts to affect their or their team's performance negatively, then it's likely that their perfectionism is maladaptive.

Problems with maladaptive perfectionism

One of the most damaging effects of maladaptive perfectionism is its impact on health and well-being. Numerous studies have linked it to procrastination, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, severe stress, low self-esteem, and even suicide.

There is an abundance of literature providing evidence for a link between perfectionism and depression. People who are highly self-critical with respect to perfectionism are more vulnerable to negative moods. These individuals tend to be overly harsh on themselves when they make a mistake and are extremely sensitive to the evaluations of others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Perfectionist strivings are characterized as attempts to achieve perfection. Both of these perfectionist traits impact depressive symptoms.

Latest research

Until recently, few studies have looked specifically at the different ways in which perfectionism influences depression. Daniel S. McGrath of the Department of Psychology at Dalhousie University led a study to address this gap.

McGrath and his colleagues looked at how depressive symptoms that impair motivation and exacerbate avoidance and isolation impacted perfectionism in a sample of 240 college students. Over 4 weeks, the researchers evaluated the students for levels of self-critical perfectionism, perfectionist strivings, and depression and assessed how each factor influenced the other. The results revealed that depression increased self-critical perfectionism and self-critical perfectionism increased depression in the students. The reciprocal nature of these findings lends support to existing research. However, McGrath also discovered that the individuals who engaged in perfectionist strivings realized decreases in their symptoms of depression. McGrath also found that in these same students, perfectionist strivings increased as depressive symptoms increased.

These results suggest that depression may actually complicate symptoms of perfectionism, not increase them. These findings are in line with other studies that found a complicated and bidirectional link between depression and perfectionism. Specifically, McGrath found that individuals with high levels of self-critical perfectionism who were non-accepting of their accomplishments engaged in self-degradation, which decreased their motivation and increased their avoidance. McGrath said, “Persons high in self-critical perfectionism may find themselves in an escalating pattern where self-critical perfectionism leads to, and results from, depressive symptoms.” McGrath believes that further research is needed to untangle the relationship between different types of perfectionism and depression.

Another study came inspected the correlation between degree of perfectionism and potential risk for depression. It was found that a mild degree of perfectionism can be a healthy thing. It can drive you to achieve things you wouldn't otherwise achieve and it can give you the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. But it can also be a source of stress, anxiety and depression.

That's the conclusion of researchers from the clinical psychology and psychotherapy department at Switzerland's University of Zurich, who say that perfectionists get more stressed than people with more modest goals.

They looked at 50 physically and mentally healthy men in their mid- forties. The men were asked to fill out psychological and personality surveys and a questionnaire about how high they felt their standards were and how they felt about making mistakes.

About half of them were considered by the researchers, on the basis of their answers, to have perfectionist traits. These men were much more anxious and tired than the rest.

The men were given took two stressful tests: a mock job interview and a five-minute maths test in front of an audience. The researchers monitored the men's blood pressure and heart rate and took blood and saliva samples before and after the interviews. After the tests the perfectionists had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood than the others.

Dissatisfaction guaranteed

Striving for perfection is a recipe for failure, because it can't be attained. Then, when you invariably fail, you experience feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, anger, frustration and sadness.

People who are perfectionists can't simply enjoy day-to-day living because their time is taken up with worrying about their supposed shortcomings, says Sarah Edelman, psychologist and author of the book Change Your Thinking.

"Sometimes it can actually be counter-productive, leading to procrastination and inaction, because people remain stuck on one particular task, trying to get it perfect and never moving on to the next task," she says.

Often perfectionist people demand perfection in others, who fail to live up to the ideal, causing rifts in relationships. Perfectionists have trouble finding and sticking with a partner, because that person can never live up to their high expectations, says Edelman.

People with perfectionist traits are more likely to suffer clinical anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and eating disorders.

So when does perfectionism become more than a useful character trait and becomes destructive? Warning signs are when you:
  • Worry about mistakes and don't give yourself credit for your successes;
  • Can't enjoy something you've done, because there are other things you need to do at which you might fail;
  • Regret things you've done in the past that haven't turned out as you'd have liked;
  • Frequently criticize and find fault in others;
  • Have trouble adapting when circumstances change or when you aren't able to control a situation.
Chilling out

Perfectionism is a difficult character trait to overcome, says Edelman, because perfectionists are so intransigent and rigid they often don't see themselves as needing to change. To overcome it they need to be able to:
  • Forgive themselves for mistakes or failings;
  • Be prepared to accept imperfections in others;
  • Set realistic and flexible time frames for the achievement of a goal;
  • Recognize that the human condition is one of failings, weakness, deviations, imperfections, and mistakes;
  • Reward themselves for progress, even when progress is slight;
  • Don't try be the best, the brightest or the star performer;
  • Are prepared be flexible, and be change plans when circumstances change.

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