“Be nice to each other.”
You don’t have to be a die-hard Ellen DeGeneres fan to appreciate the worth of this motto. And while we are reminded of the importance of kindness in dealing with others on a day-to-day basis, we often forget to apply it to those who need it most: ourselves.
Whether it’s setting a personal weight loss goal or believing we can pass a final exam, we all have the experience of setting high standards. We are even more familiar with the inevitable disappointment that comes from not living up to these standards.
Enter the life of a perfectionist.
Most importantly, not all perfectionists work equally. There are different types that are associated with different psychological outcomes.
On the one hand, you could be a personal perfectionist in trying to achieve your ambitious goals and avoid being overly self-critical. That is not that bad. In fact, this type of perfectionism is more likely to result in relatively higher self-esteem and less negative influence.
On the other hand, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough when you measure yourself against your shortcomings, and if you constantly fear that other people will not approve of you, then you may be more on the maladjustment of perfectionism. This form of perfectionism has been linked to symptoms of depression in both adolescents and adults.
No wonder, then, that researchers are curious to learn more about interventions that can help cushion this ill-matched perfectionism. In a recent study, researchers examined the possibility that self-compassion can protect us from the negative effects of ill-adjusted perfectionism. The question is whether self-directed kindness can increase our chances of living a full, healthy life. Can it fight the symptoms of depression that stem from this less than ideal version of perfectionism?
You may be wondering, “What exactly is self-compassion? And is it something that can be cultivated by anyone, or is it a skill only available to some of us? “To shed light on these questions, researchers divided self-compassion into three main components: self-friendliness, mutual humanity, and mindfulness.
While the first component is self-explanatory, the other two need to be weighed carefully. When something terrible happens to us, the first reaction often is to sit and wallow in our grief and self-pity. We convince ourselves that no one in their life has had similar problems. But that’s just not true. Statistically, it’s a wrong judgment.
In order to accept ourselves more, we need to realize that we are never as alone and isolated as we think we are. This is the heart of common humanity.
At the same time, many of us tend to over-analyze painful experiences or avoid negative feelings altogether. So mindfulness is about recognizing our thoughts, feelings, and emotions without judgment and accepting them as part of the shared human experience.
Back to our study. With these three sub-components in mind, the researchers in the present study wanted to predict that self-compassion would weaken the relationship between perfectionism and depression in both adolescents and adults.
541 adolescents in grades 7 to 10 were recruited for the first study. Participants were asked to complete three online questionnaires while they were still in school as part of a larger intervention study on wellbeing. The questionnaires dealt with perfectionism, mood / feelings, self-esteem and self-esteem, and self-compassion.
As predicted, self-compassion was found to mitigate or weaken the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression in this sample of adolescents. Next, the researchers wanted to see if the results would apply to adults.
515 adults from the general population were recruited through online advertisements. Participants were asked again to complete the same questionnaires. Again, in line with the researchers’ predictions, self-compassion was found to weaken the relationship between perfectionism and depression in the adult sample. What was true of young people later also applied to adults.
Why it matters
It seems that today’s culture values perfection above all else. Parents and teachers can push us to excel at school, our friends can judge us by how we dress and act in their company, and perhaps worst of all, our social media accounts keep deceiving us that there are people who actually have such perfect life.
Good news, bad news. The bad news is that we cannot completely erase perfectionist thoughts. The good news is that we can try to use self-compassion to change our relationship with these thoughts. As we learn to cultivate self-friendliness, connectedness, and mindfulness as we strive to achieve our goals, any setback we encounter along the way will face greater resilience and mental strength. As a result, we are less likely to fall victim to the debilitating effects of depression and we are more likely to live happy, balanced lives.
So, as Ellen DeGeneres reminds us, always be kind to others. But before doing this, you should take care of yourself first. In this case, it’s okay to be a little selfish.
M. Ferrari, K. Yap, N. Scott, D. Einstein & J. Ciarrochi (2018). Self-compassion mitigates the link between perfectionism and depression in both adolescence and adulthood. PLOS ONE, 13 (2), e0192022. doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0192022
Hill, R., Huelsman, T. & Araujo, G. (2010). Perfectionist concerns suppress associations between perfectionist aspirations and positive life outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (5), 584-589. doi: 10.1016 / j.paid.2009.12.011
NEFF, K. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2 (3), 223-250. doi: 10.1080 / 15298860309027
J. Stoeber & K. Otto (2006). Positive ideas about perfectionism: approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 10 (4), 295-319. doi: 10.1207 / s15327957pspr1004_2
Image via Nandhukumar / Pixabay.