The quest for perfection can lead to depression, especially for teens

  • Hong Kong clinical psychologist Dr Kaili Chen talks to 'Young Post' about how trying to be perfect can cause anxiety, loss of sleep and affect relationships
  • It's important to have self-compassion and to talk to someone if you're feeling overwhelmed 
Doris Wai |

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The need to be perfect all the time can lead to depression and anxiety and hurt personal relationships.

Many of us believe being perfect is a positive trait, but living with perfectionism is not easy. Young Post spoke to Dr Kaili Chen, a clinical psychologist at Central Minds, on how the desire to be perfect can make us unhappy.

If you’re unsure whether you’re a perfectionist, there’s a good chance you are, at least to some degree. Chen explains that perfectionism is characterised by a person’s determination to be flawless and to achieve high standards, which is usually accompanied by critical self-evaluation and concern about how others might judge them.

While having reachable targets is not a bad thing, it becomes a problem when we set goals that are beyond our capability. “Striving for flawlessness can chip away at our confidence in our abilities, and when we are unable to achieve the high standards we’ve set for ourselves, we end up feeling defeated,”  Chen says.

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Ironically, perfectionists know deep down that achieving perfection is impossible, but they feel driven to keep trying anyway. This can be especially hard for teenagers, who are juggling their studies, extracurricular activities and relationships. Chen says that the strong desire to excel in multiple areas can be taxing, leading young people to exhaustion, burnout, depression and anxiety, especially during exams. “We commonly see this in teenagers who have put in a lot of effort preparing for the exams but are unable to answer all the questions or to a level they are happy with. This can make them feel like they haven’t done their best and they end up giving themselves even more stress,” says Chen.

Dr Kaili Chen is a clinical psychologist.

She says this overwhelming feeling can sometimes cause panic attacks. “Panic attacks [come and go] – each attack usually peaks after a couple of minutes but can feel like a long, exposed period as time seems to stand still. Symptoms include trembling, a sense of doom, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, and rapid heart beat.” She says that in other cases, the bid for perfection can cause social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as over-editing an essay, checking work repeatedly, and having an unreasonable fear of making mistakes.

Other symptoms include insomnia – or inability to sleep and becoming ill easily. “Perfectionists send themselves into overdrive and work late into the night. Their sleep rhythm is disturbed and they don’t get enough rest, affecting their immune system and leading to illness or burnout,” Chen says. She adds that perfectionists usually worry excessively, which can cause a change in appetite and unintentional weight gain or weight loss.

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All these conditions can affect daily life and personal relationships.

Chen explains that teenagers are at a transitional stage in terms of hormonal, physical, emotional, and social changes. They are developing their sense of individuality and identity, and if they strive to be perfect, it could lower their self-esteem.“Those who suffer from perfectionism are very critical of themselves and are extra sensitive to even the slightest criticisms.

The inability to deal with such feedback can lead them to withdraw from family and friends. This will put them in a downward spiral of isolation and depression,” she says.

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To deal with the situation, Chen says the first step is self-compassion. “This means being kind to yourself and understanding that every mistake is a chance for learning and growth. In Hong Kong culture, students tend to push themselves too hard. Accept that you are bound to make mistakes, but you’ll still be loved by friends and family because of who you are.”

“Everyone needs support from time to time, even adults. Talking to someone is a great way to deal with the feeling of loss of control. People you can go to include your parents, peers, school counsellors, teachers you look up to, or a pastor or therapist. There is no shame in asking for help,” she says. And this, according to Chen, is the true issue with perfectionism – when we come to terms with the fact that no one is perfect and that is absolutely fine, we can remove the need to be a perfectionist in the first place.