Updated: Jan 16, 2019
For those looking on, perfectionism may seem to be a trivial – perhaps even amusing – characteristic. “My gosh, you’re such a perfectionist.” “Just let it go – it’s good enough.” “You and your need for perfection. You make me laugh.” But the truth is that perfectionism is far more sinister, and more inherently unhealthy, than many people realize.
Studies have shown a strong link between perfectionism and serious issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, early morbidity, suicide ideation, and suicidal attempts. Perfectionism is, in fact, no laughing matter and alarmingly it appears to be on the rise in our modern world.
Perfectionism is about judgement. We each have a set of standards that we live our life by; some of these standards we have chosen for ourselves but many others we have inherited or absorbed from family, peers and society. From these standards, we learn to judge ourselves and our adherence to these expectations: How did I perform? Where do I fit in the larger scheme of things? How do I compare to others, and to my own standards?
Perfectionism occurs when you forget to balance the striving for these standards with a healthy appreciation for mistakes, miscalculations and misfortune. When you choose to ignore the value of perceived ‘error’ and chase imaginary, ideal results, you make inevitable mistakes and missteps wrong – and make yourself wrong in the process.
Depression can be different things for different people, but it often arises when someone has spent long periods of time (maybe a lifetime) reacting to this sense of wrongness; molding themselves into something they are not and cutting off vital parts of themselves in order to match the standards of their external environment. By its very nature, perfectionism is a particularly explicit expression of this need to conform to the world’s ideals.
Depression through perfectionism
Perfectionism is the constant striving for unobtainable ideals, and it creates habits of judgment, fear and control. Therefore, it’s easy to see why chasing ‘perfection’ is potentially very limiting in terms of your capacity for joy, fulfillment and success.
When functioning as a perfectionist, your mind becomes hyper-focused on the desired result and on every detail of your project or task. This draws you out of yourself and into the elements that you are desperately trying to control – elements, ironically, that are actually controlling you. You become a victim of external circumstances; you lose the anchor within yourself, and limit both your personal power and your creativity.
In this constant state of wrongness, anxiousness, disempowerment and perceived lack of control, depression and anxiety can begin to develop.
The good news is, it’s possible to break free from the perfection-depression quagmire. And all it may take is a simple question: Whose life am I living? The pressure to ‘fit in’ and be accepted is so prevalent in our lives that we often are not even aware that we have chosen to divorce parts of ourselves to suit others. Asking this question can be a simple yet powerful tool because it invites you to become aware of where, when and how you have chosen to become someone other than we are; aware of where, when and how you have made others’ standards more valuable than the authentic expression of you.
Note: When you ask a question, your mind begins to explore all the possibilities available. To be most effective, don’t look for an immediate answer. Let your mind stay in a state of ‘query’ – searching, wondering, inquiring – and simply allow the possibilities to find their way to you.
Next, ask yourself: What do I desire? This triggers an exploration of what is true for you, beyond the expectations and standards of family, friends and society. It is common to use others as a ‘reference point’ for our own desires, capacities and possibilities - a reference that ties us to the past, and to everything external from ourselves. Asking this question will invite you to begin to untangle yourself from this external point of reference.
Of course, you may discover that what you desire does not fit into the norms or accepted limits of others. In this case, it is vital that you practice allowance. Allowance means not judging yourself for having desires that don’t fit the norm, and not comparing yourself to the desires and choices of others.
Perfectionism through depression
Another form of the perfection-depression link can arise if, and when, you are depressed due to an intense personal experience such as grief or trauma. In these cases, you may find yourself desiring to accomplish ‘perfection’ in order to feel better about yourself.
Sometimes this pursuit for perfection is intrinsically tied into the trauma or grief we are processing – perhaps you are trying to ‘grieve in the right way’ or ‘get over things’ according to the norms or standards of others.
Other times, you can be so aware of your own depressive experience that you just want to get something right in life – you feel so wrong that you just want to master something in life in a ‘perfect’ way. You desire an experience of perfection as something to cling to, like a drowning person clings to a life buoy. Sadly, this desire to find or experience perfection is incredibly disempowering. The focus on external standards and external validation will only draw you further into the sense of wrongness.
Instead, the path forward comes through acceptance of self, and the willingness to be wrong; the willingness to be you; the willingness to mess things up at times. Put simply, the creation of something greater comes when you are willing to be the authentic, weird, wrong and wacky facets of yourself … and, vitally, to celebrate and enjoy those parts of who you are. In this way, you empower yourself against the need for perfection, and the cold grip of depression and anxiety.
Perfectionism has undeniable impact on mental health. Because of this, it’s vital to pay attention to perfectionist traits – either in yourself or in people you love – and take steps to stimulate a healthier perspective on external ideals, standards, mistakes and other perceived examples of wrongness.
Susanna Mittermaier, born in Vienna, Austria, is a psychologist educated at the University of Lund, Sweden, where she worked at the university hospital in the psychiatry department with psychotherapy and neuropsychological testing. She is the founder of Pragmatic Psychology and author of the #1 international bestselling book, “Practical Tools for Being Crazy Happy.” As a highly sort after public speaker and keynote speaker, Susanna has been featured in magazines such as Forbes, TV soap, Psychology Today, Women’s Weekly, Ooom, Wienerin, Empowerment Channel Voice America, Om Times, Motherpedia, Newstalk New Zealand, Holistic Bliss and many more. Susanna offers a new paradigm for psychology called Pragmatic Psychology and is known for her ability to transform people’s problems and difficulties into possibilities and powerful choices. Susanna is also a certified facilitator for Access Consciousness® special programs including, Being You. Follow on Twitter @AccessSusanna.