Breaking Free from the Trap of Perfection

In a society that celebrates the American Dream–if you work hard enough, you’ll succeed–the affliction of perfectionism sounds great. It can help with pursuing achievements and a comfortable life, so what’s the harm?

Unfortunately, the intense pressure and expectation of chasing perfection can take a toll on your mental health. Before covering the steps you can take to combat perfectionistic tendencies, you need to learn about the different types of perfectionism and how they’re linked with depression.

The Perfectionism Trap

Perfectionism is more than a drive or desire to do well. It’s a stable personality trait to be flawless, coupled with an intense fear of failure. When you’re caught in this trap, you can experience three variations of perfectionism:

  1. Self-Oriented: You have an irrational desire to be perfect in every aspect of your life. This study found that individuals with this type of perfectionism are more susceptible to depressive symptoms.
  2. Other-Oriented: You hold unrealistically high expectations for others and harshly evaluate their behaviors or performances. You’re excessively critical when they don’t meet your standards.
  3. Socially Prescribed: Whether real or perceived, you feel you need to be perfect because others are critically evaluating you. You become a perfectionist to gain approval, be accepted, and avoid judgment.

Unrealistic expectations and perfectionistic standards can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, chronic stress, social isolation, and more. These feelings can also lead to depression, so you may be wondering how they are linked.

How Perfectionism and Depression are Linked

In a meta-review of 67 studies investigating the link between depression and perfectionism, researchers made two important discoveries:

1. In people at risk for depression, perfectionism can increase that risk.

Depression doesn’t discriminate. While anyone can experience depressive symptoms, here are some factors that increase your risk:

  • A family history of depression or other mood disorders
  • A personal history of mental health issues
  • A history of trauma or currently going through traumatic events
  • Stressful events, especially if encountering more than one at a time. These could be a loss or bereavement, the end of a relationship or divorce, or even a job change or house move.
  • Menopause
  • Pregnancy (whether it’s you or your partner) or giving birth, especially if you have complications with either
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • Substance use, such as alcohol or drugs
  • Chronic illnesses

2. Perfectionism can also be a complication that can exacerbate or amplify depressive symptoms.

Perfectionists tend to have high expectations and can set unrealistic goals for themselves and others. According to the study, these views can lead to more perceived failures. Perfectionism can also cause individuals to perceive and encounter negative social interactions more frequently. You may also view yourself as having less emotional control. These perfectionistic tendencies can increase or worsen your depression symptoms over time.

How to Break Free from Perfectionism

If you have identified you’re struggling with perfectionistic tendencies, it’s challenging to overcome them. However, you can do it. It’s essential for your health and well-being. Here are some strategies to help you escape your perfectionism trap:

Practice Compassion

If you aim your perfectionism at yourself, give yourself a break. Replace your inner monologue of self-criticism with self-compassion. Start critically questioning how you think and talk about yourself. If it’s not something you’d say to your grandma or an acquaintance, you likely shouldn’t be saying it about yourself.

Find Opportunities to Embrace Imperfection

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. By seeking out opportunities to “fail,” you become desensitized to it. For example, go bowling without bumpers even if you know you’re awful at it. Or take a watercolor or pottery class–nearly everyone struggles with learning those skills initially.

Remind yourself that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process, and allow yourself to grow. You will start to acknowledge mistakes, but instead of turning them into a negative, you can embrace the beauty of imperfection and learn from setbacks.

Know Your Limits and Prioritize Self-Care

During this time, reduce situations and scenarios that contribute to your perfectionism. For example, if you take a dance class but end up being overly critical and beating yourself up over fumbled steps, take a break. Listen to yourself, and when your negative self-talk kicks in, recognize your limit and back off.

Focus on activities that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Simple, non-competitive exercises are ideal during this time. Try going out for a jog without your Garmin tracking your run. Or try out a new type of exercise, like swimming. It ticks both the self-care and embracing imperfection boxes.

Set Realistic Expectations

Your new mantra is “perfection is unattainable and unrealistic.” Set achievable goals and manage your expectations so you can focus on progress and celebrate true success rather than perfection.

Seek Support and Professional Help

If you’re struggling with your perfectionist ways, reach out to trusted friends or family for support. It’s best to reduce exposure to individuals or situations that exacerbate your socially prescribed perfectionism during this time.

You can always speak with a mental health professional as well. Sometimes, speaking with a trained professional you don’t know can help alleviate feelings of isolation and shame without being as worried about what they’ll think of you.

If your perfectionism has led to depression or is becoming stronger due to your depression, speak to your health provider immediately. Because the conditions are so connected, treating depression often eases perfectionism. They can talk with you about all your clinical depression treatment options, including alternative depression treatments.

Embracing Life

Perfectionism can often result in success and validation, but pursuing it is costly. Those with this trait often struggle with low self-esteem, depression, and an overall diminished well-being. By accepting the harmful impact of perfectionism and actively challenging your unrealistic standard, you can cultivate your self-compassion, resilience, and mental health. Life is messy. You’ll find more happiness and fulfillment when you can embrace life–including the mess.