Psychologists Explain Why Your Perfectionism Might Be Pushing People Away From You

New research explores the social implications of being overly perfectionistic.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 28, 2022

A new study appearing in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology suggests that an unrealistic need for perfectionism often begets depression, social disconnection, and a lack of belonging, among other negative outcomes.

"I became interested in investigating the role of perfectionism in depression after working on a project demonstrating that perfectionism — a personality trait that is frequently idealized and rewarded in our society — leads to greater depression over time," says the lead author of the new research, psychologist Katerina Rnic.

To understand which kinds of perfectionism lead to depression, Rnic's study focused on the Perfectionism Social Disconnection Model (PSDM). This theory suggests that perfectionism of any kind leads to a greater disconnection from others, which in turn leads to a depressed mood and other symptoms of depression.

"Given that interpersonal stress is one of the leading causes of depression, we decided to use the PSDM as a framework for examining whether interpersonal problems explain the link between perfectionism and depression," says Rnic.

Rnic and her team tested this theory in a group of adults and found that all types of perfectionism led to greater depression by instilling feelings of social disconnection. Below is a breakdown of the different forms of perfectionism studied by the researchers.

  • Self-oriented perfectionism. This form of perfectionism demands perfection of oneself and is what most people think of when they talk about being a perfectionist
  • Other-oriented perfectionism. This form of perfectionism requires perfection from others, such as family members, friends, and co-workers
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism. This form of perfectionism is the perception that others require you to be perfect to secure their approval

The authors also point out that perfectionism can be expressed in different ways, such as:

  • Perfectionistic self-promotion, or is the active promotion of one's talents and abilities to impress others. Unsurprisingly, this interpersonal style shares similarities with narcissism.
  • Non-display of imperfections, or not showing one's imperfections, such as avoiding participating in activities that could reveal one's shortcomings
  • Non-disclosure of imperfections, or not verbally sharing one's imperfections, such as by avoiding talking about one's mistakes or difficulties

According to Rnic, people often exhibit a paradoxical persistence in their perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors despite their negative consequences.

This can be explained by another finding in their study which highlights some of the advantages of holding oneself to a standard of perfectionism. For example, although self-oriented perfectionism was linked with greater social disconnection and depression, it was also associated with greater reassurance of worth. This is likely because self-oriented perfectionists are highly driven, a characteristic that others may admire, thereby reassuring the perfectionistic individual of their worth. High reassurance of worth was, in turn, associated with lower depressive symptoms.

"Our finding that some types of perfectionism may actually have positive outcomes (while at the same time also being associated with negative outcomes) begins to shed light on why people continue to pursue perfection despite the harsh realities of imperfection and the costs associated with its pursuit," explains Rnic.

Rnic gives a couple of suggestions for anyone who might be struggling with perfectionism:

  1. Think about how perfectionism has harmed you along with thinking about how letting go of perfectionism might benefit you. Would you have more time for the things you enjoy? Would it be easier to get started on and complete tasks? Would you get along better with your spouse or partner?
  2. Try out behavioral experiments where you intentionally practice making mistakes and do things imperfectly. As part of these experiments, predict what will happen when you make a mistake and then follow through with the plan to see what actually happens.

"People are often amazed to see that the sky didn't fall, and that in fact, there is much to be said for the freedom of embracing imperfection," concludes Rnic.

A full interview with psychologist Katerina Rnic discussing her research can be found here: A psychologist tells us why perfectionism can be a path to depression and loneliness