By Wesley Gallagher
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 16.1 million adults in the US experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2014. Depression is also the leading cause of disability in the US among people between the ages of 15 and 44.1
While we know it can have many causes, there’s one characteristic that has been recently linked to depression, and it’s not what you’d think.
A new study points to a surprising connection between rising perfectionism in our culture and rising mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. The study, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, suggests that young people are more obsessed with perfection than previous generations. Between 1989 and 2016, perfectionism has continued to rapidly increase in the US, with rates that parallel increased cases of depression and anxiety.2
The authors of the study define perfectionism broadly as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”2 Within this broader definition they distinguish three subcategories:
So how does this rise in perfectionism in our culture correlate with the rise in rates of depression? According to the American Psychological Association study, research has shown that perfectionism, especially socially-prescribed perfectionism, is positively related to a range of psychological disorders including depression and anxiety. Perfectionists have an excessive need for others’ approval, but tend to feel socially disconnected, which makes them susceptible to psychological turmoil.2
In another article on the American Psychological Association website, Paul Hewitt, PhD, explains that socially-prescribed perfectionism, the feeling that people will only value you if you’re perfect, is so detrimental to mental health because it combines pressure with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Many people who struggle with this feel like the better they do, the better they’re expected to do. Other-oriented perfectionism, the tendency to demand perfection from others, can be damaging to intimate relationships and cause isolation and alienation, which are risk factors for depression.4
Dr. Hewitt, who has researched perfectionism for 20 years and frequently treats perfectionists as a practicing psychologist, prefers to work with patients on the underlying desires behind perfectionism – the need to be accepted and cared for. He believes these interpersonal needs are the precursors to perfectionist tendencies.4 Such desires are obviously not problematic in themselves – it’s the need to be perfect in order to gain them that creates issues.
The unfortunate reality painted by this study is that our culture is a perfectionistic culture, but it’s up to us as individuals to fight against the tide, to learn to accept ourselves and others, imperfect as we are. After all, our mental and emotional health depends on it.
1 “Facts and Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed January 30, 2018.
1 Curran, Thomas and Andrew P. Hill, Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, December 28, 2017.
1 Parker, Maggie. “The ‘irrational desire’ driving millennials and Gen Z into depression.” Yahoo! News, January 3, 2018.
1 Benson, Etienne. “The many faces of perfectionism.” American Psychological Association, November 2003.