Nobody’s Perfect: A Look at Toxic Perfectionism and Depression

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By Joanna Benson and Lara Jackson

Guest blogger:
Lara Branscomb Jackson has her BA in psychology, her master’s in counseling and is completing her PhD in counseling. Lara has a private practice and works at a Wellness Center that focuses on eating disorders, addiction, diabetes, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.  She grew up in North Carolina in the LDS faith and is an active member in the  LDS church. An interesting aspect of Lara’s experience is that her parents were converts to the church from the Baptist faith. Her parents were the only converts to the LDS faith of her extensive family. Lara has been in numerous callings in the church including multiple opportunities with the Young Women’s program.

Utah Valley University professor Kris Doty observed first hand how depression affected LDS women, when she worked as a crisis counselor in the emergency room at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. Doty saw increased activity of LDS women on Sunday evenings after church meetings suffering from feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and guilt.

Doty concluded the LDS women’s depression was caused by genetics, abusive history, family relationships, and judgment by others. However she found that toxic perfectionism was the major cause of depression among LDS women.

To understand the dangers of perfectionism, Psychology Today says: “For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance.”

For many individuals, toxic perfectionism results in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) personality disorder.  OCD individuals transfer religion into a competitive performance-based church community. For example, how successful the individual appears in areas important to LDS culture (i.e. marital status, choices their children make, and financial status), determines their feelings of worth as a person. People who suffer from toxic perfectionism are subject to tremendous stress to project a “perfect image” of themselves and their family to others.

Dr. Don Miguel Ruiz, spiritual counselor and popular author wrote, “We form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody. We especially try to please the ones who love us, like mom and dad, big brothers and sisters, the priests and the teacher. We create this image, but the image is not real.  We are never going to be perfect from this point of view.  Not being perfect, we reject ourselves. And the level of self-rejection depends upon how effective the adults were in breaking our integrity. …………..We cannot forgive ourselves for not being perfect”.

Toxic perfectionists judge themselves and others to an impossible standard. In their toxic perfectionist delusions, those affected come to believe they have control over their circumstances, and their “family or personal righteousness” somehow exempts them from the typical trials of life. Observance of the gospel  is incorrectly preached as a protection from the sorrows of life, rather than a source of strength and comfort when trials, which shall surely come.  We break our Christian Baptismal promise of ” mourning with those who mourn, and standing with those in need of comfort”; instead judgmental comments are cast in the direction of those whose sufferings  are made public, “if X had been more righteous, than Y would not have happened”.

All of us, even perfectionists, will eventually experience difficulties. Typical life experiences such as illness, handicaps and death can be subject to toxic perfectionism, which keeps individuals from grieving adequately, confronting problems, or finding joy in living outside of the stereotypical box.  Toxic perfectionism is especially difficult for those who divorce, never marry, do not serve a mission, came home early from a mission, have fertility problems, in part-member families, suffer from addictions, have committed transgressions, word of wisdom issues, and way-ward children etc. Their situation sets them apart, because they don’t feel they fit the perceived “standard”. Consequently, they don’t feel part of the LDS community or worthy of G-d’s love.

There are essentially two kinds of depression: situational and clinical. Those who suffer from clinical depression are those who have a natural chemical pre-disposition to depression.  Often this condition runs in families and can be controlled with medication and coping mechanisms learned in therapy, diet and exercise. However when someone who suffers from clinical depression is exposed to toxic perfectionism, this aggravates all the triggers for serious deep depression.  The other typical kind of depression is situational depression. Situational depression happens with typical trials in life such as: death, divorce, job loss, financial difficulties, handicaps, illness, rebellious children, etc.  This depression can also be alleviated with medication, grief therapy, diet and exercise.

Unfortunately many in leadership and members of congregations do not understand depression is an illness. For those who suffer from depression, they are made to feel that their illness is a result of unrighteousness. They are told to get out and serve and it will cure their depression.

In a 2008 Gallup Poll, Utah was ranked number 1 in the “well being of its citizens. Utahans rated themselves high in healthy behaviors and happiness in their work environment as well as emotional and physical health.  In 2012, The Wall Street Journal rated Utah number 4 in “America’s Happiest States” The criteria being education, life expectancy, obesity, education, and well being which Wall Street journal defines as, “six areas of well-being, including life evaluation, physical health and work environment”.

Despite the high quality of life, in a study by Mental Health America, using data from 2002-2006 revealed Utah was instead the most depressed state in the US.  In the area of Serious Psychological Distress (PSD), Utah was the only state to rank in the top fifth of all three age groups.  What’s more, the intermountain west states of: Utah, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado register more suicides per hundred thousand than any other region in the US.

We believe that this high rate of toxic perfectionism is what is driving the high depression and suicide rate in Mormon Communities. It is important to realize, everyone will face trials in their lifetime, which will cause situational depression or compound clinical depression. To feel guilt for not living up to perceived religious or social expectations makes one susceptible for deep depressive episodes.

Normally faith provides a solace to those who are suffering with grief or stress. One can assume LDS members who are active in their ward, that their activity should provide a barrier for depression. Faith can, and should, offer solace and comfort in times of stress and grief. Unfortunately when value as a person, and satisfaction in life, is wrapped up in a personal evaluation or a competition with others, the end result is, we judge others and ourselves way too harshly.  After all “nobody is perfect”, and ultimately toxic perfectionism leads to unhappiness all around.

Also see: http://www.millennialstar.org/nobodys-perfect-excellence-instead-of-perfection-2/

For further information see:

 Crosby, Alan E., Beth Han MD, LaVonne A G Ortega MD, Sharyn E. Parks Phd, and Joseph Gfroerer BA. “Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults Aged ≥18 Years — United States, 2008-2009.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 21 Oct. 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6013a1.htm>.
Gronley, Marie. “Types of Depression.” Mrie Gronley Psychiatrist. Scottsdale Mental Healthcare P.C. 1 Mar. 2013 <http://psychiatristscottsdale.com/>.

Jensen, Jack L., Cameron R. John Dr, and Haylee Adamson. “Utah: The Happiest or Most Depressed State?” UVU Review. Utah valley State University. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.uvureview.com/2009/09/21/utah-the-happiest-or-most-depressed-state/>.
 Lockhart, Ben. “UVU professor’s study puts focus on LDS women and depression.”DeseretNews.com. 31 Jan. 2013. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865571984/UVU-professors-study-puts-focus-on-LDS-women-and-depression.html?pg=all>.
 Neeley, Karissa. “UVU Press Releases » Blog Archive » Depression Study by UVU Professors Yields Insights on Cultural Impacts.” UVU Press Releases » Blog Archive » Depression Study by UVU Professors Yields Insights on Cultural Impacts. 14 Oct. 2010. Utah Valley University. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://blogs.uvu.edu/newsroom/2010/10/14/depression-study-by-uvu-professors-yields-insights-on-cultural-impacts/>.
 Psychology Today. “Psych Basics: Perfectionism.” Psychology Today. Psychology TOday. 1 Mar. 2013 <http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/perfectionism>.
 Ruiz, Don Miguel. “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) [Paperback].” The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book): Don Miguel Ruiz: 9781878424310: Amazon.com: Books. 1997. Amber-Allen Publishing COmpany. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.amazon.com/The-Four-Agreements-Practical-Personal/dp/1878424319>.
 Seay, Steven J. “OCD Perfectionism: Perfectionist or OCD Sufferer?” Center for Psychological Behavioral Science RSS. 25 July 2011. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.psychologyandbehavior.com/perfectionism-ocd-symptoms-perfectionist/>.
 Shaw, Tim. “LDS women deal with depression.” U N I V E R S E. 12 Feb. 2013. Brigham Young University. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://universe.byu.edu/beta/2013/02/12/be-ye-therefore-perfect/>.
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About JA Benson

Joanna entered the world as a BYU baby. Continuing family tradition, she graduated BYU with a degree in Elementary Education and taught for several years. Growing up in Salt Lake County, her favorite childhood hobbies were visiting cemeteries and eavesdropping on adult conversations. Her ancestral DNA is multi-ethnic and she is Mormon pioneer stock on every familial line. Joanna resides in the Southeastern USA with her five children ranging in age from 8 to 24. Her husband passed away in 2009. She is an avid reader and a student of history. Her current intellectual obsession is Sephardic Jewish history, influence and genealogy. She served as a board member for her local chapter of Families with Children from China. She is the author of “DNA Mormons?” Summer Sunstone 2007 http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/04/dna-mormons/ and “Becoming Hong Mei`s Mother” in the Winter Sunstone 2009 http://theredbrickstore.com/sunstone/becoming-hong-meis-mother/.

20 thoughts on “Nobody’s Perfect: A Look at Toxic Perfectionism and Depression

  1. Great post ladies, just great! So much is going thru my mind right now, too much to write down. I ask myself, am I guilty of this toxic perfection? Yes, I have been, I’m trying not to be right now. Then I thought as well, this toxic perfection is the opposite of Charity, the pure love of Christ, which is what we should be striving to develop and nurture in others. Finally, have I been the toxic stress to someone else? I hope not. I hope I am known as a person that would be happy to sit down and mourn and hope and cheer with anyone that needed it.

  2. This is why I like the translation of the word “perfect” from vernacular Greek. It means “complete” or “fulfilled” and these words/concepts are clearer and much less demanding of people who believe in trying to become perfect (as in flawless). Did Christ really say: “Be ye therefore complete or fulfilled?” I believe that may well have been his true meaning as the commandment immediately follows the Beatitudes, his well-known set of clear instructions regarding optimum human behavior. Christ was not speaking in English or Greek at the time, but his words were translated into those languages over centuries.

    As for overdoing a quest for perfection, I have family members who are consumed with the belief that they must constantly strive for perfection and who then suffer from depression when they are unable to attain the unattainable. It saddens me.

  3. Great article. Our members, especially many sisters, have convinced themselves they can never be perfect nor good enough for heaven. And it is not “psycho-babble.” People do convince themselves they are not good enough, and it causes depression. Recent studies show that the things we think and believe can actually change our DNA. So, a person may grow up happy, but if one begins to believe he/she is not good enough for God, family, spouse, then that can cause hormone imbalances in herself, as well as pass such DNA down to kids.
    Teaching people to redraw their DNA and neural pathways to begin thinking better of themselves is very important, albeit it hard to do.

  4. Joyce, great comment! The questions you raised should be asked by each of us everyday. We should avoid being a “stumbling block” for ourselves and for others.

    Jim, This subject can be depressing, but if we acknowledge the high rate of depression in our community, maybe we can solve the problem. I was just so struck that communities rated so very high in many areas of “well being” could have so much unhappiness. This means we are doing something wrong. It does not have to do with the gospel of Christ, but how it is interpreted. The scriptures warn of “foolish traditions of forefathers”. Perhaps we need to look at some of our traditions i.e. cultural perceptions/behaviors.

    Paul, you hit the nail on the head! We Westerners are applying our language/cultural understanding to “words” that come from a vastly different time, culture and translations. As we study the scriptures it is important to look at the original word and it’s true meaning to gain greater understand.

    Rame, excellent comment! You are right, we unknowingly teach these behaviors to our children and right on down the line. It is time to stop! We need to imagine in our minds that we are all giant sponges absorbing all the “foolish traditions” of the past; and instead of wringing ourselves out onto our children, that we instead wring ourselves out in a drain. We start fresh and new with our children; teaching them to love themselves and one another.

  5. This is a valuable post that may help some brothers understand the overwhelming demands sisters often put on themselves. It is a tough time for many women because society often seems to expect perfection from fallible people.

  6. “Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.” (Alma 30:14)

    Joanna, perhaps this is the scripture you were referring to. Significantly enough, it is a Book of Mormon quote. From Korihor.

    The traditions of my fathers are to reach out to help each other learn how to deal with depression, “…willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light…” as we read in Mosiah 18 and other places.

    Not having any luck locating the passage which admonishes, “Be ye less than perfect, as long as you’re feeling so depressed”.

    Hope this helps! :-)

  7. BRAVO!!!

    Anyone who hasn’t been through this themselves will have a hard time understanding the true magnitude of this problem. It does exist, and it is an extreme and toxic problem, that is contagious!

    The unrealistic extreme quest for perfection and depression DOES get passed down from generation, just like anything- such as alcoholism and drug use. Children see what their parents are saying and doing, and inherit that- as well as how they are treated. It can be a vicious circle. I believe my father’s generation had an extreme dose of ‘guilting’ and perfectionism- which led to many people rebelling and turning to drugs and the culture of Woodstock. Some overcame it, and some did not. Some that did, tried to mimic what they learned from their parents when they became parents, but with a side of their own regret and pressure to “not mess up”, mingled with some physical punishments. They wanted us to be honest, but not talk about our problems and “air dirty laundry”, and not be honest with themselves, or talk about their mistakes either. It’s just one scenario, but it is a recipe for disaster and not at all reality. Five of my siblings are now atheists because they felt our religion and the way my father treated them went hand in hand, and they didn’t want any part of it- or the guilt, or depression.

    Many people leave the church because they feel like it is centered around guilt and a never-ending quest to fit a mold of perfection that they can’t get to- not love or acceptance. How many times do you see cliques at church, who ostracize those who are different, or are converts, or those who just don’t fit their “ideals”? This is a sickness, and people need to stop- it just leads to people feeling unwelcome, and makes everyone more miserable. There are so many avenues that this ONE topic could lead to, I could go on for days. Church is like a hospital for sick people- a place to try to heal, where people need support and help and love. No one is absolutely “healthy” because no one is perfect- we each have our own set of faults and weaknesses. Like President Uchdorf said, “STOP IT!” and “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”

    Thank you so much for this article- you are spot-on ladies!!! This definitely needs to get talked about, and a change needs to happen.

  8. “I believe my father’s generation had an extreme dose of ‘guilting’ and perfectionism.”

    That is interesting to hear from someone else. My parents were not like this fortunately, but my grandparents were. I’m pretty sure than my parents went out of their way not to pass this onto us, but still some of the things my grandparents would say were not helpful. Whenever they would come to visit or when we would visit them we kids were always being nagged for just being kids. Before they would come we would work hard to clean and organize as much as we could, but it was never enough. After my grandparents arrived their affection was mingled with orders and criticism, “Go help your mother. . .go weed the garden. If you really loved your mother you would do x. . .” This was their way of trying to “help out” my mother. They would frequently shake their heads and mumble, “Poor ‘Janet’, she just has all this work to do.” My mother got rather irritated at this condescending attitude. She would try to explain to them, “My children are a great help.” But the message never seemed to get through. Nothing we did was good enough for them. I frequently heard as a pre-teen and a teen, “That is great that you cooked dinner, but you didn’t clean up. Remember a good cook is a clean cook.” Then would repeatedly talk about their son’s ex-wife who, “Even though she had her faults she was really good at cleaning up as she cooked.”

    Besides that, we were frequently told out of the blue that we needed to smile more because, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” My grandparents meant well, they were great people that I admired in many ways. Their criticism accomplished nothing positive. Faultfinding and guilt trips are poison to relationships.

  9. Hello, friends, amazing article.

    I am not a member of the LDS faith but live in an LDS community and see this problem all the time; I am also married to a former LDS member who has chosen a different Christian denomination as her path. I myself was raised Southern Baptist (but am now a Catholic) who has OCD/perfectionism and addictive mind problems, so I personally understand what the article is about.

    I am curious how the very fundamental concept of being born without original sin (or at least the LDS’ 18th Century perception of it) doesn’t automatically lead to this, as well as the (seemingly common practice around here) of someone confessing to their Bishop and then being deprived the sacrament as an act of “love”–instead of graceful return to the fold; that is, recognition of one’s sin is met with punishment, and not mercy. If you believe that you are born perfect and coming into this world to be tested, how could anything but this mindset be the result?

    If one believes that one is born into a world that is broken or bent, then accepting one’s brokenness allows for grace of self and others. In this community here, I see very little grace for self or others. I am appreciative of this article and the reflective comments that show an openness to engage in tough self-evaluation.

    I am not looking to start a theological debate, because I respect my Mormon friends and neighbors a great deal; but I also see a great deal of the depression, perfectionism, striving, and Pharisaic behavior. Also, feel free to correct any of my errors, because I do try to understand every culture on its own terms, even if I am not a part of it. I also recommend an amazing book called “The Spirituality of Imperfection” that could be found at most large book stores or on the Internet.

  10. Hi Josh, great comment. I think that the theology of original sin is actually very much part of the discussion. We have an article of faith: “We believe man will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.”

    This doctrine is positive in some ways, but comes with perils as well. It’s positive because we reject the depravity of infant baptism and other antiquated doctrines. But it also puts too much responsibility for our circumstances upon our own shoulders. We are in fact punished for “the sins of the fathers.” Many of our weaknesses are handed down to us by culture, upbringing, and DNA. So the doctrine of the depravity of man is a true doctrine, and one that the LDS church should recognize, at least inasmuch as we believe “I give unto men weaknesses that they may be humble.” (A scripture from the Book of Mormon.) We are imperfect because God (or Adam) made us imperfect, not nescessarily because of evil decisions we made.

    Christians in other churches never suffer as much for their sins and weaknesses as Mormons do. They confess, accept Jesus as their Savior, and move on in their imperfect, but saved state, doing their best. I think this is positive. Mormons can learn something from this.

    The LDS doctrine of Adam’s Fall can be clarified in this way: Children are born innocent, but they are also born imperfect. The problem is that Mormons sometimes think that children are perfect, and that our sins represent a fall from that perfection. But we were never perfect. Rather, our sins are a simple reflection of the imperfect state that we came to earth in, a state given to us by God (or Adam), not created by ourselves.

  11. Thanks Geoff, You are so right. It would behoove all of us to understand depression, because most of us will suffer from it sometime in our lives. Even if we are a glass-half full people, like Lara and I have life experiences such as: divorce, widowhood, single parenthood, stillborn, our own illnesses or the illnesses of our loved ones has caused situational depression in both of us.

    Jim, you are absolutely right in your comment as to the source, but Toxic Perfectionism is a perfect example of real life “foolish traditions of the forefathers. The book of Mormon people demonstrated this well. The fallen apostate descendants of Laman and Lemuel, and other fallen peoples are perfect examples of how we teach our children incorrect doctrine or practices that lead us away from the Savior.. As for your misinterpretation of Matt. 5:48 and 3 Nephi 12:47–48, we will discuss this in our next post. Also see Bre’s and RK’s comments for further explanation.

    Thanks Bre!! Excellent example of Toxic Perfectionism! Well thought out and expressed comment!
    Likewise RK, also a spot-on example!

    Both of you have articulately demonstrated that Toxic Perfectionism is done with the best of intentions and love. However the intentions, it is still wrong and does not lead to real happiness or contentment.

    Josh, Welcome and thank you for joining the conversation. Interesting observations. Thank you for your book recommendation. It sounds like something I should read.

    Nate, excellent comment, Thank you for addressing Josh’s points. I appreciate your insight in this conversation.

    Thanks Bookslinger for stopping by to read. I hope it helps in some small way.

  12. On March 17th our Relief Society had a lesson from the teachings of Lorenzo Snow. The lesson was called “Becoming Perfect before the Lord: A little better day by day” by the middle of the lesson I felt I was about to bolt for the door. My first thought was about the fact that Lorenzo Snow taught the lesson before the 1900s when women didn’t have full time jobs while being a single mother, etc. (the burdens we have today). Up until about 5 years ago I had struggled my entire life feeling like I will never be perfect enough. I have pondered about this subject for a week and I realized.. I grew up in a family who is inactive from the church and I have been the only active member. My parents didn’t preach perfection, in fact they adopted us when we were babies and they always accepted us for who we are. Out of all of my family, I am the only one who is a perfectionist and the only one who is active in the church.
    I have been teaching homemaking classes in the LDS church my whole life and have watched the needs of the LDS women. I have seen women struggle with their self esteem and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to help break this cycle. I’ve asked myself many times why we are so hard on ourselves and why we can’t just accept that we are doing the best we can do. Why do so many of us feel like we have to be “Perfect” at everything?? We all have different abilities and strengths and we also have our weaknesses. My talents are different from others and others are stronger than me with their talents.
    Please, JA Benson, can you please help me come up with a homemaking lesson to help women’s self esteem? :)

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