Self-compassion may protect people from the harmful effects of perfectionism

Posted on under Today's research

I have a love of perfectionism—in its place. My partner Alicia is a great writer because she is a perfectionist. One of her articles will be written, rewritten and then completely rewritten again. In other areas of activity perfectionism is better left to machines.

We know from a great deal of previous research that perfectionism is closely linked to depression. This is the reason that lawyers, who tend to be perfectionistic, are also one of the most depressed groups of professionals.

What the researchers say: Relating to oneself in a healthy way can help weaken the association between perfectionism and depression, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Perfectionistic people often push themselves harder than others to succeed but can also fall into the trap of being self-critical and overly concerned about making mistakes. When the perfectionist fails, they often experience depression and burnout. In this study the researchers considered whether self-compassion, a kind way of relating to oneself, might help temper the link between perfectionist tendencies and depression.

The researchers administered anonymous questionnaires to assess perfectionism, depression, and self-compassion across 541 adolescents and 515 adults. Their analyses of these self-assessments revealed than self-compassion may help uncouple perfectionism and depression.

The replication of this finding in two groups of differently-aged people suggests that self-compassion may help moderate the link between perfectionism and depression across the lifespan. The authors suggest that self-compassion interventions could be a useful way to undermine the effects of perfectionism, but future experimental or intervention research is needed to fully assess this possibility.

“Self-compassion, the practice of self-kindness, consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults,” says the lead author.

So what? I am sure they’re right, however I think the issue of the link between perfectionism and depression is a lot more complex than presented. For a start there is a great deal of genetic predisposition in perfectionism—as there is with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) with which it shares some symptomology.

Then again self-compassion—as a lot of previous research has shown—is perhaps a fiction. We get a sense of self-worth largely from the outside (the rest is genetic). From people showing that they value us, that they appreciate us and that they support us.

The other problem is that perfectionism can be a product of this externally-induced self-compassion. For example, if as a child a person had been praised for getting things right and punished for being wrong that person will get their sense of self-worth—and thus self-compassion—from that praise and will be afraid of being wrong or “imperfect.” They will love themselves for being right and show no self-compassion if they’re wrong.