A tendency to feel that any less-than-perfect performance is unacceptable appears to be a relatively stable personality characteristic, according to a study in the April Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 53, No. 2). What's more, perfectionists' tendency to fall short of their own standards may be a risk factor for depression, says author Kenneth G. Rice, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida.
Rice and his co-author, doctoral candidate Mirela Adina Aldea, administered measures of perfectionism and depression to 84 college student participants three times over 15 weeks. On the Almost Perfect Scale-Revised, students rated how much they identified with statements such as "Doing my best never seems to be enough" and "My performance rarely measures up to my standards." On the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, students indicated how often they agreed with statements such as "I thought my life had been a failure" and "I had crying spells."
Rice found that maladaptive perfectionistic characteristics were strongly associated with depression, whereas adaptive perfectionism, or having very high standards without self-criticism, was not linked to depression. He also found that perfectionistic personalities were highly stable over time.
Rice then focused on a subgroup of 11 participants who began the study depressed and were no longer depressed at its conclusion. He found that even though these participants' moods changed dramatically, they exhibited the same high degree of perfectionism.
"We were surprised that the stability was so high," says Rice. "But it is consistent with the treatment of eating disorders and possibly depression, in which people get better from these disorders but some of the problematic personality characteristics that might be associated with these disorders don't change."
Thus, formerly depressed perfectionists may still be at risk even after their depression has subsided. Knowing this, psychologists may want to focus on long-standing maladaptive tendencies while treating depression, Rice says.
"We don't just need to attend to their mood-we also need to attend to their personality," he says.