Depression behind perfection

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Bright-eyed and smiling, she buzzes around the Hub from student to student asking them how their day was, what classes they’re worried about and what she can do to help.

As a peer mentor, it’s her job to work with new students in their process of transitioning to the demands of college, and like so many students on BYU’s campus, she appears to have everything under control. The perfect student, the perfect employee and probably a perfect person.

But underneath the rosy exterior is a deep battle that has at times threatened her life. Few would perceive, by her appearance, that the cheerful Amy Shiflett struggles with depression.

“I’ve felt that I had to fake how ‘perfect’ I was because everyone around me was perfect,” said Shiflett, a senior from Mesa, Ariz., studying elementary education. “I couldn’t admit to having faults, because no one else at BYU had faults in my mind.”

The battle with depression is real for many college students. According to the American College Health Association, 30 percent of college students reporting feeling depressed to the point of it affecting their ability to function. Like many disorders, depression is multi-faceted, but one factor that has particular relevance to Mormon culture is that of perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?

The term perfectionism doesn’t appear as a disorder in any diagnostic manual; however, psychologists agree that it factors into a variety of disorders, including depression.

“I see perfectionism as rigidity about achieving an imagined standard,” said Loren Brown, a graduate student in counseling psychology who sees such behavior in many of the clients he works with.

“To them it has to be perfect; anything less than that standard is unacceptable and makes them less of a person,” Brown said.

Barbara Morrell, a counseling psychologist at BYU, specialized in studying perfectionism. She defines it by rigid, idealistic standards and by the feelings of blame and self-loathing an individual feels when they fail to live up to them.

“To many perfectionists all things become moral: grades, looks, talents, income, etc., reflect their righteousness or favor with God,” wrote Morrell in an article about perfectionism.

According to Morrell, this culture of perfectionism seems to be especially prevalent among BYU students and may be one of the largest factors that contributes to emotional disorders like depression.

A cultural confusion

Dr. Jeffrey Reber, an LDS psychologist who is currently working on a book about perfectionism, points to a misunderstanding among many Mormons of what perfection really is.

“We don’t have a Christian understanding of perfection; we have a Greek understanding that for something to be perfect it has to be unchanging and without flaw,” Reber said.

Reber believes that the adoption of this view of perfection can have a negative influence on those who fall into the perfectionistic mindset. He refers to the common misunderstanding of Christ’s command to “be ye therefore perfect” found in Matthew 5:48, indicating that we fail to realize that the verses that precede it are all about the process of getting there.

“Instead of teaching repentance, we teach sinlessness,” Reber said. “That’s what’s at the heart of the perfectionism problem.”

Shiflett recalled how her misunderstanding of perfection contributed to her ongoing battle with depression.

“In the Church we’re always told to be perfect. You’re supposed to be that good Mormon: kind to everyone, serving, etc., and with my depression I felt like I wasn’t meeting the expectations that we’ve set out,” Shiflett said.

Perfectionism’s connection to emotional disorders?

When individuals are unable to meet their unrealistic self-expectations they can begin to develop negative self-perceptions and faulty beliefs that can lead to serious emotional disorders.

Ben Salazar, a psychologist at BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services center, believes this is a manifestation of the unhealthy view of perfection.

“Where the unhealthy perfectionist comes in is when a person experiences failure and then feels a lot of shame and self-depreciation,” Salazar said. “They are not able to keep perspective of their successes and failure, and they get bogged down by feelings of shame.”

Salazar notes that healthy perfectionism can lead people to set goals and progress toward them while the unhealthy perfectionist mindset can lead people down a path of shame for the simplest of mistakes or failures. He said this shame is at the heart of various emotional disorders including anxiety, OCD and depression.

What can be done?

For those who identify with the unhealthy perfectionistic expectations, there are several things that can be done. In reaching out to others, perfectionists often have to realize everyone has trials and difficulties, even if they’re not apparent.

“Talk to someone,” Salazar said. “Whether it be a trusted friend or family member, it can be useful to help a student challenge some of their unrealistic expectations.”

Counseling is an option that can allow students to challenge some of their harmful beliefs and replace them with realistic expectations. BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services center provides free and confidential counseling to full-time students.

“I see counseling as a safe place to explore how striving for perfection might not be helpful for students and to consider alternative ways to express anxiety or depression,” Brown said. “It’s a safe place to explore and challenge it.”

Those who have sought help have found liberation in the new mindset they’ve developed as a result, realizing that perfect doesn’t have to be in the here and now.

“I’m seeking help now, and I encourage others to seek help,” Shiflett said. “I’m no longer seeing help as a weakness but as a strength that has given me the tools to realize that I don’t have to do it alone.”

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