Perfectionism, which some people view as an inherently positive trait, involves setting exceptionally high standards for oneself and always striving for flawlessness. While aiming for excellence can certainly be motivating, perfectionism tends to have detrimental effects on a person’s mental health, both in the short term and long term. In this blog, we explore the intricate link between perfectionism and mental health and offer insights into coping strategies that can help you deal with this condition.
Perfectionism encompasses two main dimensions: self-oriented and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism refers to setting unrealistically high standards for oneself, while socially prescribed perfectionism involves feeling pressure from others to meet their expectations. Both dimensions can contribute to the development of depression.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
Perfectionism arises from a complex tapestry of origins. It involves an intricate interplay between nature and nurture, driven by personal disposition and external influences. The origins of perfectionism intertwine with the threads of ambition, self-worth, and societal expectations.
For the most part, self-motivated perfectionism is what people probably think of when they hear the term. Individual temperament plays a large role in the development of perfectionism. Some people are innately wired with a desire for precision and flawlessness. Their relentless pursuit of perfection becomes a part of their identity and becomes an innate need for control.
We can see this as early as elementary school when students study relentlessly in order to achieve a perfect grade point average. This can morph into a desire for an Ivy League school later on or even a full-ride scholarship.
Perfectionism is also a product of external influences. Cultural values, familial expectations, and societal norms converge, putting immense pressure on people to not only conform but excel. The constant comparison to others, fueled by social media, intensifies the longing for flawlessness. Perceived shortcomings are amplified, and the pursuit of an unattainable ideal becomes relentless.
Psychological factors further shape the emergence of perfectionism. Childhood experiences, like overly critical parenting, high expectations, or what feels like conditional love, can create perfectionistic tendencies. The need to gain approval and avoid criticism becomes deeply ingrained and follows these children throughout their adolescence and adulthood.
Perfectionists often harbor fear, driven by a belief that any deviation from perfection equates to failure. Their sense of self-worth becomes linked to their achievements, leading to a never-ending cycle of self-imposed pressure and heightened anxiety.
A Vicious Cycle
Perfectionists can find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of letdowns. They set unattainable goals, and when they inevitably fall short, they experience feelings of failure and self-criticism. These negative emotions often lead to a sense of worthlessness and a distorted self-image that can cause a total collapse of self-esteem. The constant striving for perfection creates chronic stress, which, over time, can contribute to the development of depression.
The Fear of Failure
Perfectionists have an intense fear of failure and tend to avoid situations where they might not meet their high standards. This avoidance can result in a limited range of experiences and missed opportunities for personal growth. The fear of failure becomes a significant source of anxiety, as perfectionists are preoccupied with avoiding mistakes and being judged by others. This chronic anxiety can eventually lead to depressive symptoms.
External Validation and Self-Worth
People who seek perfection constantly often rely heavily on external validation to feel a sense of self-worth. They believe that their value as individuals is contingent upon their achievements and meeting the expectations of others; so much so, that when they fail, they feel unlovable. They often experience chronic dissatisfaction and feelings of inadequacy, even when they accomplish what would be an incredible feat to everyone else. This reliance on external validation puts them at a higher risk of developing depression, as their self-esteem becomes fragile and susceptible to fluctuations. In a sense, their own self-worth lies in the hands of others. Understandably, this can be dangerous.
Cognitive distortions are commonly experienced by perfectionists and often revolve around all-or-nothing thinking, where anything less than perfection is seen as failure. They engage in excessive self-criticism and magnify their mistakes, disregarding their achievements.
These cognitive distortions contribute to negative thinking patterns, creating a breeding ground for depressive thoughts and emotions. Even though they may seem like an incredibly accomplished person to those around them, in their own head, they are a failure.
Recovering from a cycle of perfectionistic tendencies takes time and a concerted effort but it can be done. Here are some coping strategies that might be able to help:
- Set realistic goals: Work on setting achievable and manageable goals, focusing on progress rather than absolute perfection. Celebrate small victories along the way to relieve some of the pressure of the final milestone. This can help train the brain to find satisfaction in smaller accomplishments.
- Challenge those negative cognitive distortions: Practice calling out and challenging negative thoughts and cognitive distortions that pop into your head. Replace them with more balanced and realistic perspectives.
- Focus on building self-compassion: Cultivate self-compassion by treating yourself with kindness and acceptance. Embracing your imperfections and learning from your mistakes can help you grow as a person.
- Lean on support: Reach out to friends and family who can provide a supportive and non-judgmental environment. Talking about your struggles helps alleviate feelings of isolation and provides valuable insights that you might not realize on your own.
- Make time for much-needed self-care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction. High cortisol is commonly experienced by perfectionists, which can wreak havoc on their internal systems. Instead of letting yourself feel stressed, prioritize activities that bring you joy and allow you to completely unwind.
- Challenge those pesky perfectionistic behaviors: Gradually challenge perfectionistic behaviors by intentionally exposing yourself to situations where mistakes are acceptable. Embrace the learning process rather than focusing solely on the end result.
The relentless pursuit of flawlessness and the fear of failure can contribute to the development of negative mental health symptoms for many perfectionists. Constantly shooting for the moon and missing is understandably going to breed contempt internally.
Instead, look at the bigger picture and focus on all that has gone right. Celebrate your accomplishments as well as your failures because they are all a learning experience. Before you know it, you will find yourself on the way to recovery and no longer experiencing the crippling desire for perfection at every turn.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you are struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems, New Dimensions can help. We offer both in-person and online treatment options for adolescents and adults. To learn more about our outpatient treatment programs, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at www.nddtreatment.com.
Individual and family therapy services can also be found through our affiliate at www.mhthrive.com.