A Psychologist Tells Us Why Perfectionism Can Be A Path To Depression And Loneliness

Researcher Katerina Rnic discusses the dangers of being overly perfectionistic.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 18, 2022

A new study appearing in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology suggests that perfectionists often experience depression, social disconnection, and a lack of belonging, among other negative outcomes.

I recently spoke with Katerina Rnic, the lead author of the new research, to understand the link between perfectionism and depression. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the connection between perfectionism and depression and what did you find?

My work investigates the factors that cause depression so that we can better understand and treat this common and debilitating mental disorder.

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.

There are multiple types of perfectionism, however, and we still did not know whether only certain types of perfectionism are linked with depression.

Perhaps most intriguingly, it was also not clear how each type of perfectionism promotes greater depression.

The Perfectionism Social Disconnection Model (PSDM) is a theory suggesting that perfectionism leads to greater disconnection from others, which in turn leads to 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.

We tested this theory in a group of adults and found that all types of perfectionism we examined led to greater depression through greater social disconnection.

This is important because it tells us:

  1. That all types of perfectionism are linked to depression over time
  2. That experiences of social disconnection help to explain this link

Can you describe the different types of perfectionism in more detail and explain how perfectionism connects with other personality traits?

There are two major categories of perfectionism: perfectionistic personality traits and perfectionistic self-presentation styles.

Perfectionistic personality traits are stable patterns of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors, and include self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism.

  • Self-oriented perfectionism involves demanding perfection of oneself and is what most people think of when they talk about being a "perfectionist". This requirement for perfection often extends across many areas of life, such work, school, and physical appearance.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism, on the other hand, involves requiring perfection from others, such as family members, friends, and co-workers. People with other-oriented perfectionism tend to be narcissistic and may demand perfection from others in part to make themselves look good.
  • Finally, socially prescribed perfectionism is the perception that others require oneself to be perfect to secure their approval. Past work has shown that socially prescribed perfectionism is associated with higher neuroticism — a personality trait defined by high distress and emotional instability — and social anxiety.

Perfectionistic self-presentation styles refer to ways in which people with perfectionism tend to present and express themselves to others.

There are three perfectionistic self-presentation styles: perfectionistic self-promotion, nondisplay of imperfections, and nondisclosure of imperfections. Perfectionistic self-promotion is the active promotion of one's talents and abilities to impress others. Unsurprisingly, this interpersonal style shares similarities with narcissism.

In contrast, the other two self-presentation styles are aimed at hiding one's flaws. Nondisplay of imperfections refers to not showing one's imperfections, such as by avoiding participating in activities that could reveal one's shortcoming, and nondisclosure of imperfections, which refers to not verbally sharing one's imperfections, such as by avoiding talking about one's mistakes or difficulties. Like socially prescribed perfectionism, nondisplay and nondisclosure of imperfections share overlap with both neuroticism and social anxiety.

Even though people with perfectionism often present themselves in ways that they hope will gain others' approval, these self-presentation styles often backfire.

This is because people who use self-presentation styles like self-promotion can be viewed by others as distant, disingenuous, and unlikeable. Understandably, an unwillingness to share vulnerabilities with others can get in the way of forming meaningful bonds with them. Over time, this can lead to profound feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Can you talk more about social disconnection, what it is and who it affects?

Social disconnection is an umbrella term that describes a lack of emotional or physical engagement with others and feelings of alienation or isolation.

To some degree, social disconnection affects all of us to varying degrees throughout our lives. A powerful example of this is the Covid-19 pandemic, in which social disconnection became a major problem for many people due to social distancing restrictions that were in place in many parts of the world.

We looked at several specific types of social disconnection, including loneliness, social hopelessness (negative expectations about relationships), need for social assurance (need for reassurance to feel that one belongs), and low reassurance of worth (lack of acknowledgement by others of one's abilities).

Loneliness and social hopelessness showed the most widespread effects in linking types of perfectionism with depression over time. This shows how important loneliness and social hopelessness are for increasing depression among people with perfectionism.

Why do people engage in perfectionism if it leads to greater social disconnection and depression?

The fact that people tend to persist in their perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors despite the many negative consequences of perfectionism is a paradox.

Interestingly, our study found that, although all types of perfectionism were linked with greater depression via greater social disconnection, some types of perfectionism were also associated with reduced levels of particular types of social disconnection, which in turn led to lower depression.

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 possibly because self-oriented perfectionists are highly driven, a characteristic that others may admire, thereby reassuring the individual with perfectionism 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.

What does your research say about treating perfectionism?

Although psychologists and other therapists frequently assess clients for depression and interpersonal problems, many do not routinely assess for perfectionism. Given how common perfectionism is, with rates rising in recent decades, clinicians should be attentive to the presence of perfectionism traits or self-presentation styles in their clients.

Further, although interventions aimed at improving interpersonal functioning may decrease a person's depressive symptoms, if social problems and depression are caused by perfectionism, perfectionism will likely need to be directly targeted for the client to make lasting change. Along these lines, there are several effective, evidence-based therapeutic interventions available for perfectionism, including dynamic-relational and cognitive-behavioral approaches.

What might you say to someone struggling with perfectionism?

I would first let them know that they are not alone, that many people struggle with perfectionism, and that it is a real and important problem.

I would then encourage them to think about the ways that perfectionism has gotten in their way, particularly in their relationships with others. I would also want to explore with them what some of the benefits of letting go of the pursuit of perfectionism might be. Would they have more time for the things they enjoy? Would it be easier to get started on and complete tasks? Would they get along better with their spouse or partner? When someone is ready to work on their perfectionism,

I like to encourage them to try out "behavioural experiments" in which the person makes a plan to practice intentionally making mistakes and doing things imperfectly.

As part of these "experiments," the person predicts what will happen when they make a mistake and then they 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!

What are the top two or three insights you've gained over the course of studying perfectionism, social disconnection, and depression that you can share with people less familiar with these topics? 

There are three big picture takeaways from this research.

  • First, all types of perfectionistic traits and self-presentation styles, even those that, at face-value, may not be obviously relevant to relationships, are associated with greater social disconnection and greater depression.
  • Second, even in the face of negative outcomes, perfectionism can also lead to positive outcomes such as lower social disconnection and depression. This can help explain why people are so persistent in their pursuit of perfection, though more research is needed to understand when and in what contexts perfectionism leads to more or less social disconnection and depression.
  • Third, this research highlights the value of looking at multiple types of risk factors, such as personality and interpersonal experiences, to better understand the risk factors that lead to depression.