Growing pains: is our quest for perfection leading to depression and low self-esteem?

By Natasha Warren-James

Pursuing excellence can keep you motivated and hard-working, yet putting too much pressure can lead to stress and anxiety

By Natasha Warren-James |

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It may be surprising to see perfectionism feature in this column. After all, striving for perfection sounds like a worthy goal, doesn’t it? Working hard, aiming for efficiency, pursuing excellence and being organised are all ideals to be applauded, in many areas of life. However, if you ask yourself whether perfection even exists, or whether it is actually an attainable goal, you may start to realise that aiming for it may have some problems.

While having high standards can be a good thing, an excess of perfectionist thoughts and behaviour can cause high levels of pressure and stress. This pressure can negatively affect self-esteem, and can in some cases even lead to increased anxiety and depression.

Case study

Being a perfectionist was important for Caleb*, 18, and it had often served him well. As a fly-half in his school’s rugby team, being a talented kicker made him an invaluable player. His accurate kicks and high success rate in conversions got him noticed by a coach, and he was picked to train with a professional league.

Many things were going well for Caleb. As well as achieving on the field, he was used to attaining high grades in his academic subjects. His parents were incredibly proud of him, and often rewarded him with expensive gifts and holiday experiences. He was popular at school, had a lot of friends, and enjoyed socialising at parties over the weekend.

With all these great things happening for Caleb, I had to wonder what had lead him to seek out a counsellor. Slowly, things became it bit clearer. Firstly, Caleb told me he had been having trouble sleeping. We explored what had changed for him, seeing as he said he used to easily get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Caleb explained that he often had mental lists of things that he needed to do, and these would swirl incessantly around in his mind, stopping him from getting rest when he most needed it. He would often write lists during the day – detailing how many hours he should dedicate to rugby training and what skills he needed working on, or what schoolwork to prioritise each day.

Secondly, Caleb explained how he felt he was leaving some assignments until the last minute, which was causing him a lot of stress and panic. He said he used to be very organised, and would tend to finish homework well in advance of its due date, but recently he was struggling to even get started on projects. He found it surprising that someone who saw themselves as a perfectionist was becoming such a procrastinator, and Caleb felt he didn’t recognise himself in this pattern of behaviour.

By exploring some of his feelings surrounding the work assignments he kept putting off, it became apparent that Caleb had a real fear of failing, or not being good enough. Although he had little evidence that he would fail, his past successes now meant that he felt terrified of his dropping standards, and of letting himself down. He also worried about disappointing his teachers and his parents, who had come to expect so much from him.

This fear was becoming almost paralysing for Caleb, and was stopping him from participating fully in his own life. He started making excuses to get extensions from teachers, and was feeling incredibly guilty about the amount of work that was building up. When he spoke about his situation, Caleb scolded himself harshly, saying things like “I should be doing better than this”, or “I’m just a huge mess right now”. 

While Caleb’s perfectionism had helped him become a great kicker in rugby, and had given him the drive to do well academically, the built-up pressure of being so accomplished was now making him feel so anxious he had trouble sleeping; it was affecting his productivity and even starting to make him question his own self-worth, affecting his self-esteem.

Over several weeks, Caleb worked on changing how he saw himself, and developed a much more balanced approach to the different aspects of his life. He looked at how his perfectionism was helpful in some instances, and how in others it could be unhelpful and lead to destructive patterns of thinking and behaviour.
*name has been changed

Learn to accept your perfectly imperfect self

There are so many ways perfectionism can have negative effects on people. If you recognise any of Caleb’s behaviour in yourself, or are feeling pressure from yourself or others to be a certain way, perhaps the steps Caleb tried may help you too.

1. Start a thought diary

To make any change in yourself, you first need to be aware of your own thoughts. For Caleb, the easiest way was to start a thought diary. While you may choose to buy a new notebook to write in, he found it easier to make notes on his cellphone.

Caleb paid special attention to the negative thoughts he had about himself, and noted them down as they came to mind. Often the thoughts were very critical; sometimes they were angry. As well as his own demanding thoughts about himself, Caleb also believed other people had extremely high expectations of him.

After noting down the thoughts, Caleb to me about how these thoughts were affecting his behaviour, and how he felt about himself. The self-critical thoughts were getting him down, he said, and starting to make him want to give up the sport he loved. He felt that he couldn’t be good enough at everything he wanted to be good at, and so perhaps he should just not make an effort in anything any more.

We talked about the thoughts in the diary, and started to pick them apart. Were they accurate? Were they true reflections of reality? It occurred to Caleb that he would not think such harsh thoughts about someone else, and that the amount of negativity was quite alarming. He started
to recognise that many of the thoughts he had were extreme, and blew the actual situation he was in out of proportion. For example, while he may have fallen behind with his homework, it did not follow that his “whole life was ruined”.

Caleb also accepted that he could not know exactly what others were thinking, and that he may have made some big assumptions about what other people expected from him. While he believed his teachers would be annoyed if they found out he was struggling, when he did approach them with his concerns, they set time aside to work out how to better support Caleb with all of his competing priorities.

2. What are your ‘rules’?

Perfectionists often have self-imposed “rules” that often start with the words “must” or “should”. Examples could be something like, “I must exercise for at least 45 minutes every day” or “I should earn x amount of money”.

Caleb had many rules, and felt terrible if he even came close to not meeting one of them. Once he had figured out what his main rules were, he worked on discovering where they came from, and whether they were realistic. He questioned if his rules had any negative consequences, and then came up with some more helpful rules instead.

One of the rules set for himself was that he should always come in the top 10 per cent of his year group in all his subjects. He realised this rule came from what he assumed his parents and teachers expected of him, as he had always received praise when it happened in his school reports and at Parents’ Evenings. Realising this made him question whether his parents really did expect such constantly high standards from him, or whether their praise was more about the moment than setting up lifelong expectations.

Caleb also questioned how realistic this rule was, and realised he had days when he was tired, or didn’t have time to put in his very best work. On these occasions, it was unrealistic to expect to be placed in the top 10 per cent. He saw how his rule put a lot of pressure on him, which in turn was causing him to put off doing any work at all. While he always wanted to do his best, Caleb decided that a more helpful rule might be to do the best he could in the time he had available to him.

3. Consider the worst-case scenario

Fear of failure is quite a common concern. We naturally associate failure with negative feelings, and so want to avoid it at all costs. However, failure can serve as a life lesson – learning is often best achieved through experience, and an important life lesson gained as a result of a “failure” won’t be easily forgotten.

Failure doesn’t mean the world stops moving, and there will often be second chances; decide to treat failure as a motivator, and it can give you the drive to move on and do better next time. Many successful sports people, entertainers and entrepreneurs have experienced huge “failures”, and also “successes”. They celebrate the success, and learn from (but don’t obsess over) the “failures”.

One way to rethink failure is to consider the worst-case scenario. Think about what may happen if the worst possible outcome were to be realised. Sometimes your concerns may be justified, and if that worst outcome were to happen, it would not be good. But more often than not, even if the worst result were to come about, it’s not that terrible. Recognising this can help reduce fear of failure, by seeing that the “failure” is manageable.

Another way to reduce fear of failure is to have a back-up plan. This way, even if Plan A isn’t successful, you have Plan B (and perhaps C and D) in the wings as your next options, and the failed Plan A doesn’t hold so much weight any more.

4. Build up your self-esteem

If your self-worth is built purely upon the things you’re good at, the way you feel about yourself and your self-esteem can take a real knock if you don’t always succeed. It’s a good idea to come up with other ways to feel good about yourself, that don’t depend on achievement.

Caleb was known for being good at most of the things he put his hand to, and after a while this created a lot of pressure on him to consistently excel. He realised there was more about him that he could appreciate than just his achievements, such as his sense of humour, and his ability to listen to and support his friends. Celebrating these things increased his self-esteem.

5. Develop self-compassion

Caleb’s perfectionism had led to him being highly self-critical. A helpful antidote to self-criticism is self-compassion: caring for, and being kind to yourself in the way you might towards someone who means a lot to you.

One way to increase self-compassion is through meditation. If you have a spare 10 minutes, try this compassion meditation; try to practise it several times a week:

  • Sit comfortably, on the floor or in a chair, with your back straight.
  • Breathe softly, and let your body relax.
  • When you’re comfortable, think about someone you care about.
  • Bring up a mental image of this person in your mind, and think about how much they mean to you.
  • Be aware of how this person may be suffering, emotionally or physically.
  • Form thoughts of comfort and well-being for this person, wishing them well, and for their suffering to be lessened.
  • Now bring an image of yourself to mind.
  • Form kind thoughts and feelings, and imagine them surrounding you, creating a sort of virtual hug.
  • Wish yourself well, and that you can be relieved of any pain or difficulty you are going through.

Edited by Karly Cox