Perfectionists Are More Likely To Be Depressed—But One Thing Might Help Them

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Lindsey Vonn, a skier representing the United States during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, hugs a friend on February 21. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Perfectionists may be more susceptible to depression—unless they can learn to be kind to themselves, according to research published Wednesday in PLoS One. The paper, based on surveys given to more than 1,000 Australian teenagers and adults, found that perfectionists who were more self-compassionate were less depressed, regardless of their age.

Perfectionism isn't necessarily a problem or something unhealthy. After all, there's nothing wrong with having high standards. "The problem is when you beat yourself up when you don't meet your standards," Kristin Neff, a noted self-compassion researcher and University of Texas at Austin psychologist, told Newsweek.

People who beat themselves up when they make mistakes or fall short of their own expectations can be called "maladaptive perfectionists." If this description sounds eerily familiar, we'll all just have to take your word for it. There's no real test. Even the scales researchers use have no hard and fast cut-off for perfectionism, said Neff, who was not involved in the research.

If this description does not sound familiar, you may wonder why on Earth someone would be so hard on themselves. Neff has one theory. "If you think about what perfectionism is, it's a way to feel safe, isn't it? We don't want to mess up, because if we mess up then we may not be safe. If we're perfect, then maybe we'll be safe, we'll be accepted and acceptable people," Neff said.

But trying to be perfect comes with a cost, Neff said. "Maybe you feel accepted because you're at the top of your class because you got those grades or you got a great job. But you're a stress bucket. You're stressed all the time, you're always worried. You pay a pretty high cost for success."

hockey south korea loss
South Korea's Michael Swift reacts after losing a men's preliminary round ice hockey match between South Korea and Switzerland during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. "In high pressure areas, such as professional sport and dancing, it is almost inevitable that people are going to be pressured to be perfect," said researcher Madeleine Ferrari. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Luckily, learning self-compassion is not rocket science. In fact, anyone who has given a good pep talk to a friend already knows how it's done. If a friend at work flubbed something, Neff said, "you'd naturally show compassion."

"We spend our whole lives knowing how to be compassionate and how to motivate the friends we care about," she said. "All we have to do is give ourselves permission to turn it inward."

This finding—which Neff noted echoes many others in the field—could have implications for a lot of people. In theory, adding self-compassion into other therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) might make them more effective, lead researcher and lecturer in clinical psychology at Australian Catholic University Madeleine Ferrari told Newsweek. Ferrari is currently testing that theory in girls' high schools and in children's hospitals, where she's working with children with diabetes.

However, this particular study does have limitations. First, the survey relied on people to be honest and self-aware—which isn't always a given. And the vast majority of the people who took the survey were girls and women, though the results ought to be the same for boys and men because Ferrari and her colleagues controlled for gender in their analyses. It also didn't specifically test if learning self-compassion could help alleviate depression, though other papers have. Finally, there's no way to know exactly how perfectionism, self-compassion and depression are linked—that is, it's impossible to say which might cause the others.

But being a bit kinder to yourself anyway can't hurt. "I still make mistakes all the time," Neff said. "But it's okay. We're all a mess. It's not a big deal to be a mess. It's not a big deal to be imperfect. It's OK."