An Australian study uncovers the dangerous health consequences of being self-critical for not meeting your own high performance standards. But there are ways to turn that negative inner dialogue into a positive one.
According to Jackie Chan, a psychologist at the Hong Kong Psychological Counselling Centre, perfectionism is an attitude or belief that there should be absolutely no flaws in one’s performance. Perfectionists set high – sometimes unrealistic – standards for themselves, and consider themselves failures when they cannot or do not meet those standards.
The quest for perfection starts early in many people, especially when they have parents or other authority figures such as teachers who establish perfection as the desired standard. Any mistakes they make are usually met with criticism, name-calling, shaming, or even physical punishment. They grow up eager to please and receive praise from these adults, believing that their self-worth is tied to their achievements. The media, wider society and cultural beliefs can also contribute to the desire to be “perfect”.
Perfectionism is also characterised by overly critical self-evaluations and worry about others’ judgments and criticisms. While there is nothing wrong with setting or pursuing high standards, being meticulous, or wanting things to pan out a certain way, it is important to know that perfectionism is associated with a host of negative, even dangerous, consequences. These include self-harm, chronic fatigue syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, anxiety and depression.
The link between perfectionism and depression was the focus of a recent study by the Australian Catholic University. The study, which was published in February in the journal PLOS One, found that self-compassion, or the practice of self-kindness, can weaken the established link between perfectionism and depression.
Dr Madeleine Ferrari, lead author of the study and a lecturer in clinical psychology at the university, said people who beat themselves up when they made mistakes or fell short of their own high performance standards could be called “maladaptive perfectionists”. Having such a mindset can lead to burnout and depression.
Ferrari assessed 500 Australian adolescents and 500 adults. She discovered that self-compassion either reduced the frequency of perfectionist thoughts or altered the perception towards them altogether.
Now more than ever, adults and adolescents are under great pressure to meet exceptionally high standards, both in their personal lives and at school and work. When they become excessively focused on their mistakes, and get frustrated and angry with themselves when they fall short of their own expectations, they increase their risk of falling into depression.
“Self-compassion offers an opportunity to manage these perfectionist beliefs so people don’t fall into depression,” Ferrari said. “Together with self-kindness, it consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults.”
Chan says there is a difference between the way self-compassionate people and self-critical people handle problems. The former, for example, tend to be more resilient and have a more positive outlook when things do not go their way. Chan adds that if you are already suffering from depression, self-compassion can aid the healing process – although this might only happen later, such as after you have been through counselling.