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Can Perfectionism Lead to Depression?

Unrealistic expectations can set you up for failure, and negative affect.

Key points

  • Perfectionism can help us predict and understand depression.
  • Perfectionists tend to feel, think, and act in a way that can lead to depression.
  • Perfectionism can lead to unhealthy relationships, pessimism, poor coping skills, and low self-esteem.
Source: Cottonbro Studio / Pexels
Source: Cottonbro Studio / Pexels

Too often, we put depression in a box. We label it, define it, and decide it looks just one way. But even more often, depression is hiding behind a mask.

Typically, we see depression as a slow-moving sadness and not caring at all. With this definition, one might think perfectionism is the farthest trait from depression: Caring too much versus not caring at all.

But the truth is, both are much more complicated than their labels.

Perfectionism and Neuroticism: How Personality Affects Depression

Sofia Alejandra / Pexels
Source: Sofia Alejandra / Pexels

Personality traits can be strong predictors of depression. One of these traits includes neuroticism: The tendency to experience a negative emotional state.

But neuroticism is also linked to perfectionism: Holding oneself or others to unrealistic standards. When perfection is the standard, it can feel like you’re never “enough.” It can cause you to constantly criticize yourself and others, leading you to live in a negative emotional state.

With this in mind, my fellow researchers and I asked the question: Can being a perfectionist help predict and understand depression? After performing a meta-analysis of 10 longitudinal studies, here’s what we found:

  • Perfectionism plays an important role in predicting depression — even after taking into account neuroticism

In our 2016 study, we found neuroticism was the strongest predictor of depression in terms of personality.

However, even without neuroticism as a factor, perfectionism had a significant impact. In fact, all seven dimensions of perfectionism (concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, perfectionist attitudes, personal standards, self-criticism, self-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism) were predictors of depressive symptoms.

  • Perfectionists tend to feel, think, and act in a way that can lead to depression

The dimensions of perfectionism include self-doubt, self-criticism, concern over mistakes, and unrealistic standards for yourself and others.

When you continually doubt and belittle yourself, it’s easy to not feel enough. Unfortunately, these personality traits can lead to depression over time.

Why Are Perfectionists Prone to Depression?

Perfectionism is a highly social personality trait. It affects our relationships with others and ourselves. Perfectionists can develop depression due to the following:

  • Unhealthy relationships

Perfectionists set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. This can cause strained relationships and negative social interactions.

  • Pessimistic attitude

Because of these high standards, perfectionists tend to see others in a negative light. As a result, they can approach situations with a pessimistic attitude — they’re already disappointed.

Source: Anna Shvets / Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets / Pexels
  • Poor coping skills

Perfectionists are likely to face daily stressors but don’t develop healthy coping skills to manage them. They tend to avoid or procrastinate on their to-do lists to avoid pressure and expectations.

Perfectionism can also lead to poor self-image and confidence. They only feel good about themselves when they’ve achieved “perfection.”

  • Low satisfaction

Perfectionists are always trying to “catch up” to their high standards. As a result, they tend to feel less happy with their successes and are constantly dissatisfied with their lives.

Predicting and Treating Depression for Perfectionists

You are enough.

By reframing and understanding your perfectionistic tendencies, you can begin to lift the weight of unrealistic expectations. Therapy can help equip you with coping skills, a positive mindset, and self-esteem. You can begin healing your relationship with yourself and others. As you do so, you can free yourself from the pressure of perfectionism and find hope through depression.


Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Rnic, K., Saklofske, D. H., Enn, M., & Gralnick, T. (2016). Are perfectionism dimensions vulnerability factors for depressive symptoms
after controlling for neuroticism? A meta-analysis of 10 longitudinal studies. European Journal of Personality, 30(2), 201-212.

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