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Being kind to oneself may prevent depression in perfectionists

Research 11 Dec 2018
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The perfect remedy for harmful levels of perfectionism? Try a little (self) kindness, suggests new research.

'Don't be so hard on yourself'. 'Give yourself a break'. If you find you're often hearing such comments from your friends, family or co-workers, you may be a perfectionist.

Perfectionism is the need to do everything perfectly. However, while having some degree of perfectionism is healthy and can help you to aim high, too much perfectionism (known as maladaptive perfectionism) is not good for your health.

The saying that 'you are your own harshest critic' is very real for perfectionists. Perfectionists become extremely self-critical and often develop a paralysing fear of failure. This can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

However, new research has discovered what might just be the perfect remedy for perfectionism. The study has shown that if you're a perfectionist, not being too hard on yourself by practising self-compassion can lower your risk of depression. Self-compassion is when you are kind and understanding towards yourself when faced with personal failing.

Published in PLoS One online scientific journal, 541 adolescents and 515 adults took part in the study, anonymously answering questionnaires that looked at the connection between perfectionism, self-compassion and depression.

The research, which was led by Australian Catholic University, found that self-compassion weakened the link between perfectionism and depression in both adolescents and adults.

Jean Hailes psychologist Gillian Needleman says the study is encouraging, especially given the increasing levels of perfectionism in today's society.

Another recent study found that every generation of young adults since the late 1980s is more prone to perfectionism than the generation before. Published in Psychological Bulletin, the research looked at three decades of studies, and noticed an upward trend in perfectionism that matched increasing levels of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

"It is so important that we find tools to help people combat perfectionism, as we know that if left untreated, it can lead to stress, depression and anxiety," says Ms Needleman.

"Teaching self-compassion is an effective method of stopping maladaptive perfectionism because it helps people to change their relationship with difficult thoughts."

Ms Needleman says it's all about harnessing the power of the mind.

"The great news is that you can definitely train yourself to have a healthy mindset," she says.

"Thinking kind thoughts about ourselves is important as we navigate the ups and downs of life. No one is perfect and life is not perfect. We all need to expect imperfection."

Challenging perfectionist thoughts with self-compassion can make life much easier to manage – and more rewarding as a result. Self-compassion is about not judging our own mistakes and failings – and accepting that these are part of life – as well as expressing a caring and kind attitude towards yourself.

Creating self-compassion

Techniques from self-compassion guru Dr Kristin Neff (

How would you treat a friend?

  • Think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself. Try to think about how you would respond – write down what you would say and also think about the tone you would use.
  • Now think about the words and tone you would use for yourself when you feel bad. Write this down.
  • Is there a difference? If yes, think about why – what thoughts and fears come into play?
  • Now write down some new ways you could start responding to yourself – words and tone that are more similar to how you would treat your friend.

Self-compassion through mindfulness.

Think of a difficult situation in your life until you feel uncomfortable. Then try to use these three aspects of self-compassion:

  1. Note the suffering, eg, "this hurts", or "this is stressful"
  2. Note that suffering is a part of life eg, "I'm not alone", or "everyone struggles at some point"
  3. Grant permission to be kind to yourself, eg, "I accept myself as I am" or "I forgive myself".