Perfectionism is widely regarded by psychologists to be a harmful system of thinking and the correlation between perfectionism and depression makes it clear as to why. But a new study published this month in PLOS One found that self-compassion could be the key to combatting perfectionism-related depression. The underlying causes of perfectionism always trace back to childhood, according to Psychology Today. Overly critical parents, parents who rely on punitive action rather than emotional processing to manage behavior, and parents who don't offer a sense of unconditional love and acceptance can all lead children to believe that their value lies in their ability to get something perfect. And we tend to carry those belief systems with us into adulthood.
Of course, many dominant paradigms like standardized testing-based education, capitalism, and patriarchy tend to reward perfectionism so that many of us are stuck feeding into its damaging cycle to survive. And it can take a long time and a lot of personal work to realize that no amount of "getting it right" will ever lead to the acceptance we're craving. In fact, it can feel counterintuitive, but placing ourselves in environments where we're affirmed, valued, and accepted even and especially when we "get it wrong" is often the key to disrupting the harmful self-perceptions that come with perfectionism. Basically, having permission to be imperfect and an absence of fatalistic consequences for failure are the easiest ways to break out of the cycle. But, according to the study published by Madeleine Ferrari, Keong Yap, Nicole Scott, Danielle A. Einstein, and Joseph Ciarrochi out of Australian Catholic University, we can mitigate the depressive effects of perfectionism by ourselves using self-compassion, too.
"Perfectionism that involves self-criticism, concerns about making mistakes, and concerns about being negatively evaluated by others" is problematized by the study as a psychopathology labeled "maladaptive perfectionism." It's also a predictor of depression, based on the emotions that arise when a perfectionist fails: they often procrastinate, suffer burnout, and lose motivation in response. But the study, which surveyed 541 adolescents and 515 adults using self-assessments, found that, in both age groups, people with higher levels of self-compassion were less likely to suffer depressive effects of perfectionism.
The study breaks down self-compassion in three ways: showing oneself kindness (as opposed to criticism), finding commonality in humanity (as opposed to self-isolating), and mindfulness (as opposed to dwelling on painful experiences). Citing a 2003 paper by Kristen D. Neff, the study defined self-compassion as "being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience."
In other words, being gentle with ourselves, respecting our own negative emotions and giving ourselves the permission and space to feel them, and contextualizing our negative experiences as a part of being human are key ways to "uncouple" the link between perfectionism and depression, to use the study's word. The purpose of such "self-compassion interventions" is to change our relationship to negative thoughts, rather than attempt to stop having negative thoughts altogether. By accepting them as a part of life, and working through the emotions they kick up as they arise, we're more likely to process them effectively and in productive ways.
Beating yourself up for being imperfect, for feeling negative emotions, and for having negative thoughts are all similarly unproductive. Allowing yourself to feel compassion for yourself can ease all of these experiences, and it doesn't even require the help of another human. Although, as a bonus, having improved self-compassion is generally a great way to boost your compassion for others, too.