Toxic Perfectionism

Matthew 5:48

Be ye therefore bperfect, even as your cFather which is in heaven is dperfect.

UVU Professor Kris Doty spoke last week at UVU.

Kris Doty, Asst. Prof of Psychology, Utah Valley University

Kris Doty, Asst. Prof of Psychology, Utah Valley University

“In the (Mormon and Utah) culture, people have just taken it too far,” she said during the 2013 Mental Health Symposium at UVU’s Sorensen Student Center. “They think they can’t make a mistake and so they become hyper-competitive and anxious. If you think you can make no mistake, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Doty conducted a  “qualitative exploratory study” by repeatedly interviewing 20 women over a one-year period. The women were diagnosed as depressed, signed up for the study and identified themselves as active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In her findings, Doty identified five major factors that she said led to depression among the study’s participants: genetics, history of abuse, family relationships, feeling judged by others and toxic perfectionism.

Doty said the church’s teachings on striving for perfection led to misinterpretations and contributed to feelings of inadequacy.  A licensed clinical social worker and director of social work field education at UVU, she said LDS women are frequently confronted by the perfect storm of unrealistic expectations, personal guilt and suppressed feelings.

Click here to see the full article at the Deseret News.  What can be done to avoid “toxic perfectionism”, while still heeding this advice from Jesus?


31 comments on “Toxic Perfectionism

  1. What can be done to avoid “toxic perfectionism”, while still heeding this advice from Jesus?. Switch the emphasis from perfecting the natural man via will power to transcending the natural man through personal connection with the Spirit.

  2. Maybe its just me but the link isn’t working.

    They needed a control group to really see wether this group of women is a true representative sample.

  3. Astral, it absolutely is not a randomized clinical trial, but rather it’s a exploratory study that USAF most likely not fully representative. I will foxx ether link when I get home.

  4. I fixed the link. Howard, from some comments you’ve made both here and W&T, it seems like you have some sort of meditation routine. I’m not sure if it is yoga or something else. I’d be curious to hear more about your routine. If it’s too long for a comment, email me at mormon heretic at gmail dot com. Meditation is something I got involved with last summer, and something I would like to explore more.

  5. Thanks for your interest MH. I began meditating a couple of years after changing to a healthy lifestyle of more vegetables and exercise and less meat. I was seeking a spiritual path. Meditation is idling most of the mind so the balance can become a receiver to listen to your internal usually subconscious dialog and to the Spirit. You are attempting to recreate the trance common to drivers on a boring stretch of road where you aren’t sure how you safely drove the last few miles because you were spaced out but a little more structured than that. There are many ways to get into that trance, it’s probably easier for you to try a couple of meditation classes and find a way that fits for you than for me to teach you my personal method. I began by meditating to scripture reading and listening intently for guidance from the Spirit. Once I found his signal I concentrated and meditated on it until it became easier to find, track and hear even in noisy environments. Over time I transitioned from scripture reading to what I’ll call meditative prayer but my prayers were strongly focused on asking what God wanted me to do and how to do it. I’m happy to answer questions if you have them, feel free to email me.

  6. Toxic perfecionism almost ruined my life.

    I also believe that it is the root cause of most people falling away from the church. Those who have the problem feel they can never measure up, and they may also view others, especially Church leaders through the same lens and become disillusioned when they see one that, in their mind, does not measure up.


  7. Those who have the problem feel they can never measure up, and they may also view others, especially Church leaders through the same lens and become disillusioned when they see one that, in their mind, does not measure up.

    Yes low self esteem is one of the forms of this problem, the church’s mistaken focus on perfecting the natural man rather than transcending him can trigger and enable low self esteem but there are other forms as well. Some with a bit higher self esteem solve the problem by becoming hypocrites, they pretend to be living the church’s high standards while keeping their sins and short falls well hidden. Another more honest but still warped version of this is to display the modeled humility of LDS leaders while being somewhat self deprecating with regard to falling short of the mark. None of these reactions are psychologically healthy.

    The church has taken Mosaic elementary behavioral rules and the BoM concept of justice vs mercy enforcement and attempted to make a path to perfection out of it, which simply cannot be done. Christ put that concept to rest by delivering the beatitudes and with his acceptance of the adulteress: neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.

    While we enjoy spiritual doctrine that exceeds Christianity and give lip service to it in our sermons, in practice we are largely an Old Testament church and remain stuck there because this approach fits the worldview of our old leaders and because they have lost the power to easily open the heavens.

  8. After having read the Deseret news article and the comments that follow, I see it as LDS have bought into the wider capitalistic rhetoric of competition. If your not the best then your gonna lose. When you r are dealing with eternal salvation then that’s a big loss if you don’t win

    There are people I talk to who like LDS doctrine yet cringe at the Mormon culture that now goes along with the doctrine. They expressed that they see Mormon culture as American corporate culture with a religious veneer.

  9. Toxic perfectionism for me was and is an entirely personal thing. I was taught the principles of the gospel. I was taught about remorse, repentance, and forgiveness. It is not the culture of the church that is to blame, unless one blames the tenets of the Gospel that require actual sustained effort on our parts.

    I have finally come to grips with myself and my own unrealistic expectations of myself and have started building my “spiritual resume” one little bit at a time. Learning to pay a full tithing, for the right reasons, with the right attitude is one of my triumphs I can place on that resume.

    I am toxic to myself no longer. Part of that de-tox came when I realized I was and am accountable for myself, for learning and applying gospel principles to myself, and not blaming anything or anyone else.


  10. Kris:
    Matt. 5:48 is not advice. It’s a command. How is a person supposed to do the things the Savior talked about in verse 47 and, thereby, become a child of God, if he doesn’t love his enemies. If you are perfect it’s easy. The Book of Mormon teaches that charity is perfect love and that without it you are nothing.
    The crux of this, though, is in Romans 8:16: The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. If these women are sincerely trying to be better people, then God will make them to feel acceptable before him unto spiritual cleanliness and a motivation to continue their work and service – not to have continued depression. God gives weaknesses to strengthen his people for future work. Please show Matthew 5:47-48 and Romans 8:16 to them.
    Matthew 5:48 is not advice. It’s a command – and a very necessary one.

  11. Rich,
    What does the word perfect mean in Matt. 5:48 and how does one achieve it?

  12. Howard,
    Let’s see, what’s the jingle? Something, something and fully developed. That’s fine, too. The word ‘perfect’ is easier to say. Just make sure that every single category you have in your definition of perfection implies that you become like Heavenly Father in each of them. In other words, it comes on as impossible. Jesus said ‘be perfect’, not ‘become perfect’ like Heavenly Father. He commanded mortal man to be exalted Gods. That’s a longer discussion I won’t get into.
    The D&C, I believe, explains to us what part of perfection the Lord wants us to deal with. ‘Behold, this is your work, to keep my commandments, yea, with all your might, mind and strength’.(Doctrine and Covenants 11:20) It’s easy to see that He has given us the easy part of perfection – obey all the commandments all the time. So let’s get to work. God will take care of the rest.

  13. Rich,
    Well if it’s all about “obeying” all the commandments all the time commandments what do you make of the mighty change of heart and if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law?

  14. If these women are sincerely trying to be better people, then God will make them to feel acceptable before him unto spiritual cleanliness and a motivation to continue their work and service – not to have continued depression. God gives weaknesses to strengthen his people for future work.

    Rich, it seems to me that you have no experience at all with mental illness. If God always makes us “feel acceptable before him unto spiritual cleanliness”, why in the world is suicide such a problem? Why is depression a problem? According to you, God should fix this, but obviously God is choosing not to intervene. I’m afraid that if I had depression, such simplistic answers from you would actually exacerbate my condition and make me more depressed as I wondered why God didn’t make me feel acceptable before him, despite my efforts to be perfect. I really find your answer extremely hurtful and unhelpful for those suffering from depression.

  15. Howard:
    A mighty change of heart will not produce depression. It will give you strength and vision to move ahead. If you are led by the Spirit, of course you will not be under the law. The law, according to Paul, has only one purpose – to make you guilty. The Spirit will never lead you to guilt. I hope this answers your question.

  16. Rich,
    I agree a mighty change of heart will not produce depression, in fact it might even cure depression. But that doesn’t address the question I asked.

    A mighty change of heart isn’t about “obeying” yet it leaves one with no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. Also if you follow the Spirit you are not under the law; in other words you are not required to “obey the commandments” only follow the Spirit and trust me the two often do not coincide.

    So it’s NOT about “obeying” all the commandments all the time is it? Obedience is just a beginning lesson, we do it until we learn how the follow the Spirit and experience the mighty change of heart!

  17. MH:
    I agree. I don’t know anything about mental illness. The mentally ill, to my knowledge, aren’t even accountable. If so, they don’t even need the Church. The mentally ill should be getting some kind of professional help. If there are mentally ill who are accountable than they need the Church. I wouldn’t want to be the one to determine that. But one thing is for sure. If a person is accountable, they need the Church as is. (Can a person be mentally ill and accountable? I don’t know.)The last thing they need is for the Church to change it’s teachings. If the professionals find someone who is mentally ill than they should help them. If they find a person who is really not mentally ill than interpret the teachings of the Church correctly for them and if they can’t do that than find someone who can. I thought we were talking accountable people.

  18. Rich, all of us experience depression (a form of mental illness) from time to time. According to your statement, then that means “The mentally ill, to my knowledge, aren’t even accountable.” That means none of us would be accountable, because we all experience depression at some point in our lives.

    Since you do agree that you “don’t know anything about mental illness”, perhaps you should leave your advice out of this conversation. I’m afraid you’re doing more harm than good. I’m not an expert either, but I do know a bad answer when I see it. You also might want to read my post about home teaching a mentally ill man. I don’t know why God isn’t causing a mighty change in his heart, and taking away his mental illness, but I’d hate to give him the advice you gave.

  19. Rich, let me make another statement, lest you think I’m only talking about the severely mentally ill. When someone is truly depressed (due to a divorce, death of a loved one, or a breakup with a boyfriend/girlfriend), they may or may not be diagnosed as clinically depressed. I think we need to be careful in what we say in these times.

    A high school friend of mine, former cheerleader, active LDS, married to a great man (and a psychologist) suffered from depression. Some days she was active and cheerful, other days she could barely get out of bed. I had no idea that anything was wrong until I heard that she died from an overdose of her medication. She did not appear to me to be mentally ill, and I had no idea that she had been suffering for years. We need to be careful with the messages that we send that God will magically take away our depression. God didn’t take it away from her–she died from her depression, but left no signs like the schizophrenic man I still home teach.

  20. Howard:
    ‘A mighty change of heart isn’t about “obeying” ‘??? OK, a rebirth doesn’t come by our obedience to God. It’s a gift from Him. But you’re saying that you don’t need obedience to Him to invoke His power in giving that gift? ‘Yet it leaves one with no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually’??? The reason we do good works is that we judged by them. Not saved by them, but judged by them. I like the idea of being saved but if, because of the judgment, I can only be in the telestial kingdom, I’ll be sad for a long time to come when a better quality of obedience could have gotten me much more. Also, ‘if you follow the Spirit you are not under the law; in other words you are not required to “obey the commandments” ‘??? You mean that if I don’t commit adultery long enough then after a while I’ll be able to do it all I want? Howard, where are you getting all this stuff?

  21. Rich you seem to be having trouble following me. I stated “Obedience is just a BEGINNING lesson, we do it UNTIL we learn how the follow the Spirit and experience the mighty change of heart!” The mighty change of heart transcends the need to obey (or rotely follow orders)by taking away any desire we had to do other than good and following the Spirit transcends the requirement to obey standing commandments because we are receiving real time guidance and teaching which is much more up to date and specific than written commandments allowing personal tutoring to take place. The rules are different for people who have a direct ongoing connection with the Spirit than those who don’t. Those who don’t must depend on generalized mostly written rules designed for the body of the church and/or the world relayed by a prophet and written down often long ago while those who are connected to the Spirit can receive current customized direction to tutor them personally in the gospel and personal growth.

  22. @Mormon Heretic Maybe I need to tell a story about myself. About twenty years ago, I made a financial blunder to the tune of about three thousand dollars. Some people would say, So? But to me it was enormous. I was working at a steel fabrication factory and I could have been working some place else for much more. I’ll never forget that night when I started my shift what happened. I was terribly despondent. It was like some kind of weight was pressing down on me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had done – how foolish a decision I had made. And then, quite suddenly, I started to realize that I and this pressing feeling couldn’t coexist. One had to go. I was shocked to find myself seriously contemplating taking my life. I remember thinking that this kind of thing may to the guy down the block but it doesn’t happene to me.
    But it was. Then I remember thinking that I know how to get out of this. I said to myself, ‘Take a steel rod out of the material hopper and put it into the saw and cut it.’So I did that. Then I said to myself, ‘Do it again.’ So I did it again. And than a third time. And then I said to myself, ‘Keep doing this until break time and then we’ll talk again. So I did it. When if was break time, I went and sat down in the break room and all at once I remembered that I wasn’t depressed anymore. I wasn’t even thinking about it. The incident hadn’t changed. It was still a stupid mistake, but the pressing feeling was all gone and it never came back. Some how I just knew what to do and I did it. Was I depressed? Was I mentally ill? I don’t know. you tell me. How did I know what to do when others killed themselves? I don’t know that either. In my opinion of myself, I feel I was accountable through the whole thing but that I would never use my experience as a licence to counsel someone else. I read your article and I would say that Ted goes far beyond the women Kris talked about. He sounds dangerous. Had you ever considered having him pick out something he considered a problem in his life and talking to God about it and then telling you how it went? If you had known that the woman you mentioned had mental problems would you have tried to help? How?

  23. Howard, that was much better.

  24. Rich,
    You’ve described an interesting example of situational depression that was alleviated by using good coping skills. But the episode could have been avoided had your standards been lower or more flexible to begin with. Non-physical suffering is optional and caused by clinging to to the way we want things to be instead of accepting them as they are. As soon as we accept them the suffering ends.

    Clinical depression is much more persistent than situational depression and the origin is often unknown or less clearly know and therefore harder to relieve. When the origin is dysfunctional early life experiences or the result of dysfunctional brain chemistry it is very difficult to cure.

  25. Interesting discussion about depression, perfection, and spirituality. Like any other physical disease, depression is lessened by overall healthy living (sunlight, obedience to commandments, good food, rest, prayer, eternal perspective, supportive relationships). However, just like other physical illnesses, depression can be a lifelong affliction, in spite of healthy living. Both Howard and Rich are correct; depression is a complex system of diagnosis, treatment, external and internal factors.

    In my case, depression reminds me that I am mortal and dependent on God and His grace. Like Gideon in Judges 7, I face situations overwhelmingly under-qualified for success. Depression is such a barrier for me – it is a constant factor, a weight pulling me down, a daily slogging through molasses. And yet, I have many blessings in my life that I have not earned or deserved. This shows me that God has and exercises power in my life for my good, in spite of my prominent inadequacies.

  26. Now a comment about Mormon women, depression, and toxic perfectionism. I am uniquely qualified to comment, because I am a female, Mormon perfectionist with clinical depression.

    To many Mormon women in America and of a certain social class, “perfect” means checking off the to-do list while maintaining a pleasing appearance: visiting teaching, nicely decorated house, children with nice clothes and hair, blog and/or scrap booking, modest clothes, cute embellishments added to callings, children meeting all religious markers (like baptism), cute invitations to religious markers, being thin, living on husband’s salary, husband’s callings, nice cars, and voting for the correct political party. From my observation, there is no “perfection” attached to professional accomplishment, scriptural knowledge, or authentic friendships. In fact, “perfect” humility is evidenced by addressing spiritual and intellectual matters with “I may be wrong about this, but…” or “I’m no expert, but…” or “I definitely don’t have this figured out and there are lots of you who do it better, but I think…” These Mormon women almost never express confidence that God has power to protect their families or guide their lives or intervene or make bad things work for their good. Instead, they talk about not doing enough or being grateful for blessings they’ve earned by making good choices.

  27. My take on Jesus’ idea of perfection:

    Perfect obedience is the lesser law and often a barrier to the higher law of perfection: perfect faith, hope, and charity. Perfect charity is the highest of all God’s virtues and expectations. And charity cannot be earned through human effort or works. It is a gift from God – Moroni 7:48. The irony is that only by turning all our efforts over to God can we earn and achieve perfection.

  28. on Blueletterbible.org it outline the Greek and Hebrew meaning for word that is translated as Perfect ( Teleios/Shalam)
    1) brought to its end, finished
    2) wanting nothing necessary to completeness
    3) perfect
    4) that which is perfect
    a) consummate human integrity and virtue
    b) of men
    1) full grown, adult, of full age, mature


    1) complete, safe, peaceful, perfect, whole, full, at peace
    a) complete
    1) full, perfect
    2) finished
    b) safe, unharmed
    c) peace (of covenant of peace, mind)
    1) perfect, complete (of keeping covenant relation)

    I also think that Angie has it spot on . Its the way that my wife describes some of the women in our branch.

  29. Howard, ‘But the episode could have been avoided had your standards been lower or more flexible to begin with. Non-physical suffering is optional and caused by clinging to to the way we want things to be instead of accepting them as they are.’ I’ll settle for the higher standards, thank you. Howard, Angie, MH. I like what you have said. I’ve learned. Angie, I’ve never heard the term ‘perfect charity’. It comes across as a little redundant, don’t you think?

  30. Astral_Lds, Jesus commanded us to be 100% of both those lists and probably anything anyone else could think of. I still say, just say perfect. It’s easier. This was Jesus’ description of Heavenly Father and he commanded mortal man to be like that when even he(Jesus) didn’t consider himself ready to match up to it – (Call no man good, only God is good).(whereever it is). About the women your wife describes; I have a question for all of you. How many them are like me, fully accountable and can get out of it if they want to, but choose some kind of fake route to come across as righteous? You mean they’re all really sick? And by the way, I even here my wife talk like this. She’ll say stuff like how wicked she is and she’s going to hell. I scold her and tell her to stop talking like that.

  31. Rich wrote:I’ll settle for the higher standards… Including the depression? Okay Rich have fun.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: