Perfectionism doesn’t sound like much of a problem if you haven’t struggled with it. Someone wants to do things too well? Big deal, right?
But perfectionism isn’t the same as striving for excellence. It often comes alongside anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, and it puts roadblocks in the way of achieving not only excellence but anything at all. People who have problems with perfectionism may have an especially hard time meeting their own standards. They may grow anxious, angry or frustrated when they can’t. They may also have serious difficulty meeting deadlines or completing tasks. Self-criticism and perfectionism often go hand in hand.
A recent study of about 1000 Australian teens and adults may have identified one possible way to limit the negative impact of perfectionism, though. According to the study, self-compassion may offer a better way through.
“We know that perfectionism can often lead to people pushing themselves too far in the pursuit of an unobtainable excellence, and as a result experience burn-out and depression symptoms,” lead researcher Madeline Ferrari told Reuters Health. “However self-compassion seems to offer the opportunity to manage these perfectionism beliefs and not fall into the depression trap.”
The researchers administered anonymous questionnaires to 541 Australian teens and 515 adults, assessing their levels of perfectionism, depression and self-compassion. The results were promising. While depression was strongly correlated with perfectionism, as expected, self-compassion did uncouple levels of perfectionism from levels of depression. Even with high levels of maladaptive (or unhealthy) perfectionism, respondents with high levels of self-compassion experienced less depression than their peers who didn’t practice self-compassion.
The study’s authors believe that self-compassion interventions could help people overcome some of the negative effects of perfectionism, but more research is required.
“Self-compassion, the practice of self-kindness, consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults,” said lead author Madeleine Ferrari.
Practicing self-compassion can be challenging, particularly if you’re already dealing with depression. PsychCentral author Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., recommends several ways to begin the practice, starting with small steps:
- Start with small acts of self-care.
- Bring awareness to your experience without judgment.
- Get curious about your own thoughts and self-criticism.
- Interrupt rumination by refocusing.
- Explore the expectations you hold for yourself.
- Focus on self-compassionate statements.
- Write a letter as if you were helping a loved one with the same struggles.
- Remember that you’re not alone.
Our inner critics can be loud and overbearing, but it is possible to learn a more compassionate way of living with yourself. If you need assistance learning to be compassionate with yourself (as many of us do), talking to a mental health professional may help.