Takeaway: Depression and perfectionism are two separate but related experiences. They can often feed into each other, putting you in a negative headspace that’s difficult to get out of.
However, it’s possible to change your mindset. In this post, we’ll break down both perfectionism and depression, explore the relationship between the two, and provide strategies to help you combat both.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is exactly what it sounds like: striving for perfection in all areas of your life. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), perfectionism goes beyond having high standards-it exceeds what is realistic or necessary for any given situation.
Since there is no standard definition of what constitutes perfection in various areas of life, this can look different from person to person. People may fixate their perfectionism on their job performance, how they feel, their appearance, or their relationships.
For many people, perfectionism is a stable personality trait or way of viewing the world that shapes how they perceive situations, those around them, and themselves. People with perfectionist personality styles may logically know that perfection is an unattainable goal, but still feel an intense drive toward making things just right.
While having high expectations can help make someone driven and successful, maladaptive perfectionism goes beyond that. Clinically significant perfectionists may experience a significant impact on their self esteem and ability to find pleasure and fulfillment in life.
Types of perfectionism
Unlike mental health disorders, perfectionism is not a specific diagnosis. Rather, experts conceptualize it as both a personality trait and a type of thought pattern. Each person’s experience with perfectionism is different, though some researchers believe there are three main dimensions to this characteristic.
Self oriented perfectionism
As the name suggests, self oriented perfectionism is focused around one’s own behavior and identity. With self oriented perfectionism, a person tends to have strict (and typically unattainable) standards for themself. They scrutinize their actions and performance, and they have a strong drive to avoid failure at all costs.
Self oriented perfectionists may experience a significant amount of distress at the discrepancy between their ideal self and the flawed, nuanced human being they actually are.
Other oriented perfectionism
Other oriented perfectionism refers to how perfectionism presents in a person’s relationships with other people. Like self oriented perfectionism, this dimension of the phenomenon involves high standards, though they are directed at other people instead of oneself.
When other people inevitably fail to live up to the unrealistic expectations of the perfectionist, they may be the subject of intense blame and criticism.
Socially prescribed perfectionism
Socially prescribed perfectionism refers to the pressure that people with perfectionist tendencies feel from others in their life. Similar to the concept of people-pleasing, those who struggle with socially prescribed perfectionism are preoccupied with living up to the real or imagined standards that others impose on them.
Like the other dimensions of perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism can contribute to negative consequences. People with perfectionist thinking may experience shame and low self esteem when they view themselves as falling short of expectations.
What is depression?
Depression is a common mental illness. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression.
While everyone feels down from time to time, depression is much different from simply feeling sad or blue. Depression is a significant mental illness that can impact a person’s social, emotional, and physical health, as well as impair their ability to perform tasks of daily living.
Symptoms of depression
Each person has a unique experience with depression. Symptoms can look different from person to person, especially if other mental health issues are on board. While these are some of the most common depressive symptoms that people experience, this is not an exhaustive list.
- Depressed mood
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Sleep issues, such as insomnia or sleeping too much
- Fatigue or low energy
- Changes in appetite, such as eating too much or too little
- Decreased self worth or feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- Fidgeting or difficulty sitting still, or speech and movements that are slower than usual
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of self harm or suicide
If you or someone you know is in need of immediate support, please contact the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or visiting 988lifeline.org.
Types of depression
Depression is more than just one diagnosis. In fact, there is an entire category of depressive disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which therapists use to diagnose mental health issues. Here are just a few.
Major depressive disorder
People with this disorder typically experience the depressive symptoms described above. These symptoms often ebb and flow in an episodic way, meaning that a person may notice that depression intensifies and subsides throughout their life.
In bipolar depression, also known as bipolar disorder, people experience episodes of depression as well as episodes of mania. In depressive episodes, people with bipolar disorder have the same symptoms of depression described above. In manic episodes, people with bipolar disorder may experience the following symptoms:
- Elevated mood
- Decreased need for sleep
- Racing thoughts and fast speech
- Engaging in impulsive or risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, speeding, or excessive spending
- Feeling “on top of the world”
Postpartum depression refers to depressive symptoms that specifically occur following birth. Many new moms experience the “baby blues,” but these tend to go away within the first days or weeks following birth. If symptoms linger longer than that, postpartum depression may be on board.
Other mental health issues related to perfectionism
Perfectionism and depression are closely linked. However, there are other mental disorders that have ties to perfectionism as well. Here are some examples.
There are multiple types of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias. Research suggests that there is a correlation between anxiety and perfectionism.
Similarly, studies demonstrate a link between perfectionism and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. People with these disorders often have strict standards for themselves and their bodies, which aligns with a perfectionistic way of thinking.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is another mental health issue that tends to be highly correlated with perfectionism. In fact, perfectionism is a common theme of the obsessions (thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors) that people with OCD experience.
Exploring the relationship between depression and perfectionism
While it’s impossible to say whether perfectionism leads directly to depression, research demonstrates that the two are closely linked. In fact, some experts believe that neurotic perfectionism can be a risk factor for developing depression and other mental illnesses.
People who struggle with maladaptive perfectionism often give overly critical self evaluations, meaning they can be too hard on themselves. Understandably, this can contribute to low self esteem-a trait that’s commonly associated with depression.
Beyond negative views of oneself, people with other oriented perfectionism or socially prescribed perfectionism may feel anger and disappointment toward others.
For example, a person with socially prescribed perfectionism may resent those that impose (or seem to impose) expectations upon them. These feelings can lead to feeling disillusioned in the relationship, contributing to loneliness and isolation, which is also common with depression.
This idea is supported by studies using the Perfectionism Social Disconnection Model. This theory suggests that perfectionism is associated with a disconnection from other people, whether from shame, insecure attachment style, or other variables.
Another study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology further supports the concept that perfectionism inhibits relationships and can make depression more difficult to treat.
The link between perfectionism and depression is complex, and each person experiences it differently. While depression and perfectionism may never completely go away, there are plenty of strategies you can use to mitigate their effects.
Coping with perfectionism and depression
Having self critical perfectionism can make it difficult to confront your thoughts and feelings due to the intense guilt and shame you likely experience. However, it is possible to reshape the way you react when perfectionistic thoughts and depressive symptoms come on board. Here are a few of our top suggestions.
Notice all-or-nothing thought patterns
Observation is the first step in making meaningful change. After all, you can’t shift your patterns if you don’t notice them happening. Start the process by growing your awareness of when perfectionist thought patterns, such as all-or-nothing thinking, come on board.
Growing your mindfulness of the situations that trigger these thoughts can provide helpful information for your journey forward.
People with perfectionist tendencies demand perfection from themselves and others. When people (including themselves) inevitably fall short of the unrealistic expectations, there can be intense feelings of anger, blame, and shame.
By increasing your capacity for compassion, you can make space for your uncomfortable emotions while also remembering that we’re only human. It’s easier said than done, but growing your compassion for yourself and others can help you to soothe the emotional distress you might experience.
Engage in therapy
We understand that it can be daunting to reach out for help, especially when your perfectionism and depression can keep you isolated from others. With that being said, confronting your inner critic is tough work, and you deserve support in doing so.
Therapy can be a space for you to explore your thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental environment. With the help of therapy, you can unpack this internalized shame and learn how to be gentler on yourself and others.
Try grounding strategies
When you notice perfectionistic thoughts creep in, try using a grounding strategy. These techniques can take you out of your head and back into the present moment.
There are many different grounding skills that you can use, so find the ones that work best for you. If you’re unsure where to start, try using the categories method. For example, name all the fruits, countries, or clothing brands you can think of. Focusing your attention can help break you out of distracting thought patterns.
Prioritize both mental and physical health
Your physical body is just as important as your mental and emotional health. Movement can be particularly helpful when you feel overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings. Try going for a short walk or doing some gentle stretching to help you connect with your body next time you notice your inner critic kick in.
Online depression therapy can help you unlearn the thought patterns that hold you back
Life can feel particularly stressful when you demand perfection of yourself and others. If you’re ready to confront the thought patterns that hold you back and learn how to live a more fulfilling, connected life, we’re ready to help you.
Our team at Introspection Counseling Center provides online depression therapy that can help you get to the root of your challenges and forge a new path forward. Interested in learning more about how we can help? We encourage you to reach out to schedule your free 15-minute consultation. We look forward to hearing from you and supporting you along your journey.