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Perfectionism probably creates a Vulnerability for Depression

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

An article in the current Journal of Counseling Psychology (April 2006 Vol. 53, No. 2, 205-212) titled, “State Dependence and Trait Stability of Perfectionism: A Short-Term Longitudinal Study”, caught my eye today. Researchers Kenneth Rice and Mirela Aldea, both of the Psychology Department at the University of Florida studied several hundred college students trying to figure out how stable people’s tendancy towards perfectionism is. Tests measuring aspects of perfectionism and depressive mood were administered across multiple sessions separated by a month or more, and each student’s scores were looked at across time to see how much they changed. Though the researchers went into the study thinking that perfectionism scores might change as a function of how depressed peopel were feeling, the data did not support that suggestion. Instead, students’ perfectionism scores tended to be stable across months despite the fact that depressive moods came and went. As the authors note, “…the results confirm that changes in perfectionism were not accounted for by changes in depression, suggesting that perfectionism, especially maladaptive perfectionism, is not simply a complication of depression or caused by an onset factor commonly shared with depression.” Instead of depressed mood driving how perfectionistic people are, it appeared instead that perfectionistic tendancies tended to drive depressive vulnerability. A “path analysis” showed that it was the case that higher levels of perfectionism, measured at the first data collection were predictive of depression as measured at the third and final data collection. What does this all mean? Well – difficult to say, considering that you can’t generalize much from college student sample populations (researchers study college students becuase they are cheap and abundant, but though they may be as perfectionistic as any group (and perhaps even more so), they are not typically as depressive as the general population). Still, if you give the study the benefit of the doubt, what you have is the suggestion that part of what makes some people depressed is that their standards are unrealistically high, and they beat themselves up into depressions. This is a stable tendancy of these people’s personalities, so if you want to help these folks to feel less depressed, it is NOT enough to simply treat their mood symptoms. It is the case that you must treat their maladaptive perfectionistic thoughts, perhaps with a cognitive-behavioral intervention such as cognitive restructuring.

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