The trait of perfectionism is one that has been met with both admiration and concern. The quality of striving for perfect results, whether conditioned or inborn, may seem like nothing more than a good work ethic. When taken to an extreme, however, it can trigger a harmful burnout. Or worse.

So what protective shield can one use against depression that stems from perfectionism? Self-compassion, says a newly published study named "The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion" in the journal PLoS ONE. 

To differentiate the healthier forms of perfectionism from the ones that could lead to depression, the study highlights "socially prescribed perfectionism (SPP)," a maladaptive form that is grounded in the need for external approval. The fear of negative feedback can contribute to a solidified negative self-image in the long run. 

The participants comprised of a small group of Australians – 515 adults, who were between the ages of 18 to 72 and 541 adolescents, studying in grades 7 to 10. The aim of the study, conducted through anonymous questionnaires, was to look into "whether self-compassion moderated, or weakened, the relationship between high perfectionism and high depression symptoms."

Results revealed self-compassion was indeed a moderator, which either reduced the frequency of perfectionist thoughts or altered the perception towards them altogether. The research also cited a 2003 study by University of Texas professor Kristin D. Neff, which proposed three basic components of self-compassion: self-kindness (as opposed to self-criticism), common humanity (as opposed to separating and isolating oneself), and mindfulness (as opposed to over-identifying with one's painful experiences). Neff, who is renowned for creating the self-compassion scales, described it as "relating to oneself with care and support when we suffer."

The female participants reported more symptoms of depression compared to men and boys, while the male participants showed higher levels of self-compassion. A strong case was also made of how modern culture in both schools and workplaces reinforced high standards that cannot be obtained without disrupting the work-life balance. 

The rise of social media in recent years was also considered a catalyst for extreme social comparison. With the means of curating perfect snapshots of life, each platform also carries tools of approval such as likes and followers. Researchers and millennials themselves have expressed concern over its impact on mental health.

“We know that perfectionism can often lead to people pushing themselves too far in the pursuit of an unobtainable excellence, and as a result experience burn-out and depression symptoms. However self-compassion seems to offer the opportunity to manage these perfectionism beliefs and not fall into the depression trap,” said lead author Madeline Ferrari in a correspondence with Reuters.

Ferrari, who is a clinical psychologist from Australian Catholic University in Strathfield, New South Wales, also emphasized the importance of the study to parents in particular. 

“Noticing perfectionist tendencies in children shouldn’t be a cause for panic. Instead, this is an opportunity to model and teach self-compassion, especially when a child’s performance doesn’t meet their own standards.”

While the study is limited by factors of diversity and numbers, it may lead to improvements in treating depression through methods such as compassion-focused therapy or mindfulness meditation. Such methods could ease the urge for validation and help cultivate a mindset that is able to accept failure.