Perfectionism and Depression are Issues of Soul
There’s a strong connection between perfectionism and depression. By “perfectionism”, we’re not referring to those who are just very motivated to do well.
A true perfectionist is a person who can’t bear to make a mistake, and who can’t let themselves off the hook when their performance falls short of what they regard as ideal. Most of us have some perfectionist in us; some of us have a great deal.
Are perfectionism and depression closely related? There’s some very good reasons for believing that they are, and that people who genuinely struggle with perfectionism are also struggling with depression.
Sometimes we refer to someone as “perfectionist” because they have a strong motivation to strive for excellence. But striving for big goals isn’t what makes someone a perfectionist. What makes someone a perfectionist is what they do if they don’t meet those high goals. A person who subjects themselves to relentless self-attack because they don’t measure up to some preconceived or arbitrary standard is demonstrating one of the key characteristics of perfectionism.
Perfectionism, Procrastination, Paralysis
A person with problematic perfectionism can accept nothing other than sheer flawless perfection. A true perfectionist can torture her- or himself if the result is anything less.
This can often result in the perfectionist person getting stuck in extreme procrastination. The individual will keep trying and re-doing the task, delaying completion, to make sure the result is absolutely perfect. Alternately, the individual may continually avoid ever starting the task, because the judgmental self-criticism starts from the moment that the task is commenced, and it’s just too hard to bear.
In a similar way, people struggling with perfectionism may be highly averse to trying anything new. The individual may have always wanted to dance salsa, study Spanish or play blues guitar, but intense fear of outright failure or not being good enough keeps her or him from taking the plunge and starting.
In many ways, perfectionism can work to shut down the spontaneity and joy of those who are in its control. It can keep individuals out of long term relationships, fill them with great anxiety in social settings, and result in a number of other unfavourable impacts.
Where Perfectionism Meets Depression
Researchers such as York University’s Prof. Gordon Flett have shown that perfectionism about oneself is often associated with fairly severe depression, especially when it is connected with stress in
achievement-oriented activities such as school or work. This is not really surprising: if an individual feels in such important areas of his or her life that they don’t and can’t possibly meet the standard, they are of course going to feel devalued and powerless.
Many perfectionists feel immense pressure to appear together, in control and competent to the rest of the world. Yet for many who deal with perfectionism, that “togetherness” mask is just a facade. Inside perfectionism is a highly devastating and painful tyrant, forcing the individual to lash themselves for the least little failure or shortcoming.
Sometimes, people will not even admit to themselves that they are in the grips of a highly corrosive form of perfectionism. They try to run from it, but can’t escape its devastating effects.
How can the perfectionist find healing and peace? How can she or he get beyond being crippled by depression?
Perfectionism and Depression are Both Matters of “Soul”
The perfectionist needs self-acceptance, self compassion and self love, certainly, but how will she or he ever get there, when the inner voices scream so loudly that she or he has so completely missed the mark?
I think that /a-midlife-transition James Hillman gives us some important clues:
Each of us needs an adequate biography: How do I put together into a coherent image the pieces of my life? How do I find the basic plot of my story?James Hillman
Perfectionism is many things. One aspect is that it’s about living my life in a way that’s bound to someone else’s story about my life, and someone else’s standards. My self-esteem becomes completely dependent on my living up to standards that someone else has imposed and that I have internalized. One key element that the perfectionist has absorbed is the judgment that I am not enough. This cruel message can easily keep us from understanding our inner worth and value.
We begin to take away some of the power of perfectionism if we can enter into our own story with love, or, if you prefer, self-compassion. In order to do that, we have to first accept ourselves. I’m put in mind of the famous C.G. Jung quote:
The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.C.G. Jung
Self-acceptance can be terrifying, because it forces us to go up against our worst demons — the ones that tell us that who we are really doesn’t measure up. To push through this, and to get to the place where we can really see and acknowledge how hard we try, how difficult it is to hope, and how much we actually suffer is demanding soul work. To go further, and to have compassion and kindness for that suffering being — our self — takes even more.
Such work can be very hard to do on our own. We often need help, and it needs to be help that we can rely on. For many people, the safe container of /a-midlife-transition is essential for this purpose. It is here that we can work to find what Hillman calls the basic plot of our own story, which is the same thing Jung calls our personal myth.
It’s essential to begin to claim our own story as our own, as something that ultimately no one but we ourselves can evaluate or appreciate. To understand that, in ourselves, we are a uniquely precious reality. This is the true meaning of soul, and the very heart of the journey toward wholeness.