By James S. McGraw
Illustration by Tyler Carpenter
Over the last several years there has been an increased concern from scholars and mental health professionals about the negative effects perfectionism has on a person’s well-being. Researchers typically define perfectionism as “setting unrealistically high standards, rigidly adhering to them, and defining… self-worth in terms of their achieving these standards.” With this definition, it should not be surprising that perfectionism has been found to be an element of numerous mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders, sexual disorders, OCD and experiences such as suicidal thoughts. For this reason, many experts across the country recommend treating perfectionism as a way of alleviating multiple disorders at once.
Of growing concern has been how perfectionism is related to religious communities and beliefs. Faculty and students at UVU have been leading the conversation on how Mormons experience perfectionism and how it can negatively affect them. Several UVU students and faculty have noted that for many Mormons suffering from perfectionism, their religious beliefs act as both a hindrance and great asset in its treatment. Thus, exploring religiously enmeshed perfectionism is of great importance to this community.
There are important factors to understand before examining the issues of toxic perfectionism among Mormons. First, the experience of religiously informed perfectionism is not unique to Mormonism. The literature on this subject shows that members of many faith communities experience toxic perfectionism (e.g., Jews, Mormons, Baptists, Catholics, and others), as do many non-religious groups. Secondly, Mormons are not necessarily more likely to be perfectionists. In a study Samuel Peer and myself published last year titled, Mixed Methods Study of Perfectionism and Religiosity among Mormons: Implications for Cultural Competence and Clinical Practice, we found that Mormons are no more perfectionistic than other populations.
However, while perfectionism may not be unique to or more prevalent among Mormons, it still has a dramatic impact on their lives. Former UVU Professor of Social Work, Kristine Doty-Yells, conducted research on Mormon women suffering from depression. She found that the most common source of their depression was perfectionism.
In another study Dr. Matthew Draper and myself published titled Grace as Psychotherapy: Suggestions for therapists working with Latter-day Saint Clients, we found religiously enmeshed perfectionism at the core of Mormon women’s anxiety and suicide attempts. Thus, while Mormons may not be more perfectionistic than others, it certainly takes a uniquely Mormon form and flavor.
Perhaps the most commonly cited source of toxic perfectionism among Mormons is a misunderstanding of how keeping commandments is related to the Atonement of Jesus Christ, or the belief that one can receive grace and mercy from God in times of need. Mormonism tends to emphasize keeping prescribed rules and practices (often described and experienced as non-negotiable commandments from God) and salvation through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice (often referred to as the Atonement). Researchers and therapists alike have noted that if Mormons take a rigid and perfectionistic interpretation of commandment-keeping and salvation, then clients can be hurled down a path of never-ending failure and discouragement. This feeling of failure is compounded by a common misconception of needing to be perfect in order to feel God’s love and receive His help.
Mormons struggling with perfectionism should know that relief is possible. Moreover, they should know that they can recover without having to abandon their deeply held religious beliefs and convictions. In fact, with the help of good therapists, many Mormons struggling with perfectionism have found relief within their faith.