When I was in elementary school, the little girl who sat across the aisle from me in second grade had trouble getting her homework done on time. Laboriously printing each word with a pencil, striving to shape each letter perfectly, she'd inevitably make a less than perfect letter. She couldn't bring herself to erase the letter and redo it--she had to start with a fresh sheet of paper and begin again. Despite our teacher's reassurance that it was all right to have an erasure on her worksheet, the girl insisted on doing it her way. Naturally, every assignment was an exercise in agony. I often wonder how her life turned out.
Are you a perfectionist? Can you never be happy with your accomplishments? Psychologists say there's a connection between perfectionism and depression. How can that be? There are many super achievers who aren't depressed, aren't there?
The difference is in how they think about themselves and what they accomplish.
Depressed people see a setback as a personal failure and react with self-criticism. Healthy people know they're not going to get it right every time, and they don't expect to. Imagine a baseball player who thinks he must hit a home run every time he comes to bat. That unrealistic expectation guarantees he'll fail the majority of the time. The student dooms himself to depression when he thinks that anything less than an A (or even an A+) is some sort of personal failure. This "all or nothing" thinking is common is depressed people.
Psychologists say that perfectionism is a personality trait, meaning you're born that way. So how do we get to a state of healthy desire to excel versus unhealthy perfectionism? The answer is in your thinking processes and in what you fear. There's a difference between a desire to excel--do your very best--and a desire to be perfect. Look at the standards you set for yourself. Are they excessively high? Do you believe that anything less than being number one is a failure? Do you believe that the only way to get others to admire and respect you is to be the best?
Where do these beliefs come from? Some say they're afraid of disappointing their parents. True, some parents set excessively high standards for their children, and in that case, it's important to realize that the problem lies with the parent and not with the child. A healthy parenting style means that parents realize that their child is not a carbon copy of themselves, and doesn't exist to fulfill their own dreams. Other parents may seldom express approval of the child's performance, simply because they have an aloof personality, or because they themselves were brought up that way. In this case it's important to realize that the child may be misinterpreting the parents' behavior as disapproval. In other cases, the child may simply misinterpret the parents' well-meaning messages. For example, a parent may try to be encouraging (Come on, Kelly, you can do better!) and the child reads that as disappointment in his or her performance. In all these cases, therapy can be very helpful.
Other perfectionists say they are afraid of not being accepted by their peers if they are not the very best at what they do. They fail to see that such reasoning means that either their peers are not the kind of people whose acceptance is worth much, or their belief is unwarranted.
Whatever fear drives your perfectionism, the results are often embarrassment, guilt and/or procrastination. After all, you can't fail if you don't try. But then you never succeed, either!
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.