- Dec 5
- Mental Health Treatment
Depression is a complex condition that can significantly impact how a person views themselves and society. While researchers haven’t found one particular cause of the condition, many studies reveal a strong connection between depression and perfectionism. The tendency to be overly self-critical and hold oneself to high standards of performance can ultimately lead to depressive symptoms and other maladaptive behaviors.
While perfectionism can lead to an unhealthy cycle, several therapeutic practices can help you feel better. Keep reading to learn more about the link between depression and perfectionism and how professionals can help.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism refers to the tendency to persistently strive for perfection and hold oneself to unrealistic and extremely high standards.
Perfectionism personality traits aren’t considered a disorder but rather a vulnerability factor that increases a person’s chance of developing depression and other psychological problems like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, and even addiction.
Perfectionism is multidimensional, consisting of three types:
- Self-oriented perfectionism: People with self-oriented perfectionism believe they must be perfect themselves. They often strive to meet unrealistic standards and are prone to constant self-evaluation.
- Other-oriented perfectionism: This type of perfectionism causes individuals to hold others to unrealistically high expectations and is associated with harsh criticism of their performance.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: People who have socially prescribed perfectionism believe that others judge them harshly and that they must display perfection to gain societal approval. This type of perfectionism can be the most debilitating.
Essentially, perfectionists demand perfection in themselves and in others or believe that others will only accept perfection from them. Living with a harsh “inner critic” is not easy. If you are a perfectionist, you likely have an internal dialogue constantly telling you that you’re not good enough, no matter what you do or how hard you try.
Not only is this inner voice draining, but perfectionists also often criticize themselves for being self-critical or feel that their constant efforts are proof of their irredeemable imperfection. For instance, a perfectionist student might believe they are a failure for receiving a perfect score, thinking that if they were truly smart, they would have achieved the grade without trying so hard.
How Perfectionism Leads to Depression
There are several reasons perfectionism and depression may co-occur. Perfectionists believe that most tasks they do demand perfection, and this unhealthy thought pattern can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.
1. Self-Defeating Behaviors
Perfectionists believe that good enough is never enough. They often become stuck in an endless loop of over-striving and self-defeating behaviors, where every task is seen as an opportunity for failure, disappointment, and self-criticism. As a result, it is not surprising to find ample evidence implicating perfectionism in depressive symptoms.
2. Contingent Sense of Self-Worth
Further, maladaptive perfectionism is associated with a contingent sense of self-worth, making perfectionists more vulnerable to depression when encountering perceptions of failure. These individuals often have an inflexible attitude toward changing patterns of thought, despite the consequences that perfectionism can have on their quality of life.
Relying on rigid behaviors and building self-worth around success can cause mental distress. When they cannot meet the high goals they set for themselves, it can exacerbate lowered self-esteem and lead to depression.
People with self-oriented perfectionism often ruminate about situations where they fail to achieve perfection in their high goals. They often experience increased feelings of shame while ruminating over even the most minor mistakes. These unrelenting negative thoughts can become habitual and contribute to the development of depressive symptoms.
Moreover, those with self-oriented perfection are obsessed with productivity and prone to ruminating about events that may have prevented them from obtaining their goals efficiently. This is also true of people with socially prescribed perfectionism, as they are overcome with the belief that others are overall judgmental of their performance. They’ll often ruminate about how they have fallen short of others’ high expectations and the negative feedback they receive or anticipate because of it.
Perfectionism and depression can lead to eating disorders and postpartum depression, among other types of mental health conditions. The most concerning issue associated with maladaptive perfectionism is an increased risk of suicide.
4. Social Disconnection
One study found that perfectionism generated depressive symptoms among students, making them feel like they were falling short of others’ expectations. This often resulted in negative expectations about future relationships. Essentially, perfectionism leads to a sense of continual disappointment and disapproval from others, ultimately leading to hopelessness regarding future relationships.
Those with perfectionism may feel imposter syndrome, a feeling that they never belong, fit in or deserve the good things that happen to them, which can quickly lead to depression.
5. Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms
Additionally, some people struggling with perfectionism and a harsh inner critic may self-medicate with substances to cope with emotional pain. Students are especially at risk of experiencing depression, perfectionism, and substance use disorder in school. When addiction enters the picture, the spiral of perfectionism and depression can worsen.
How to Manage Depression Caused by Perfectionism
Managing your inner critic can be challenging, but there are several things you can do to silence that voice. Practicing self-kindness reduces the strength of the relationship between perfection and depression and several therapeutic practices can help you boost self-compassion.
One study found that mindfulness methods, such as yoga, boosted participants’ levels of self-compassion by 43% after following an eight-week training course. Psychotherapy can also help people identify their harsh self-beliefs to change them over time. Specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in helping people overcome perfectionist tendencies.
CBT can be applied to situations where a person is experiencing difficulties in interpersonal relationships and everyday situations, highlighting the best ways to resolve problems. More specifically, behavioral therapy targets cognitive biases and performance-related behaviors, addressing how to respond more flexibly to events. CBT can also help clients become more adaptive and less governed by self-imposed rules. As a result, you can learn to overcome perfectionism and unhealthy thought patterns to live a more relaxed, balanced lifestyle.
People who turn to substances to cope or struggle with perfectionism while in recovery can turn to addiction experts for help. At Gateway Foundation, we offer several types of therapies and social support groups to help you overcome perfectionism, depression, and substance use disorder. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) also discuss perfectionism to help people stay on track with recovery.
Overcome Depression and Perfectionism at Gateway Foundation
Depression and perfectionism often go hand in hand, and when coupled with addiction, can make recovery feel overwhelming. If you or a loved one are struggling with these issues, Gateway Foundation can help. In addiction recovery, you can learn the importance of accepting yourself.
At Gateway Foundation, we can help you embrace imperfections, learn positive self-talk and strive for a healthy, sober lifestyle. While you may feel stuck in the cycle of rumination, our physical and mental health professionals can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms and overcome substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders triggered by perfectionism.