Why you should care
Because striving for the unattainable can have dark consequences.
Perfectionists strive to be flawless. They set themselves high standards to excel in the classroom, the workplace, sports games or performances. But there are downsides to perfectionism: It comes with a tendency to procrastinate, it can be downright annoying to people you love and, in some cases, it can even be deadly.
Indeed, a recent study shows a strong correlation between striving for the unattainable and thinking about giving up — harming oneself — when these goals cannot be met. According to the findings published in the September 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality:
Almost all aspects of perfectionism are related to an increased risk of suicidal thinking.
After analyzing 45 studies with 11,747 participants (including undergraduates, medical students, community adults and psychiatric patients), researchers at the University of Western Ontario concluded that perfection is, indeed, quite pernicious. In addition to suicidal thoughts and attempts, it can also lead to depression, early mortality, interpersonal conflict, social disconnection and poor health.
There’s an important distinction between striving for excellence and demanding perfection, which is rigid and dangerous.
There’s one curious exception, though: perfectionists who demand perfection from the people around them, such as a romantic partner, boss or parent — a trait that is associated with psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism, says Martin Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of psychology at the University of Western Ontario and the author of the study. While these individuals may have an inflated sense of entitlement and distress the people closest to them, they generally don’t distress themselves or have suicidal thoughts. Instead, they may be prone to thoughts about homicide, Smith says he and his colleagues speculate.
This study counters a widely debated theory that perfectionism can be healthy or adaptive, finding instead that it can lead to everything from eating disorders to an early death. “Suicidal thinking is still a predictor of a completed suicide,” and perfectionists — who can suffer from social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders and exhibit a tendency for black-and-white or even catastrophic thinking — are at risk when they encounter achievement-related or ego-threatening stressors, Smith says: “If they don’t get a perfect mark on a test or fall short on some internal goal, this increases the risk of suicide.” There’s an important distinction, he points out, between striving for excellence and demanding perfection, which is rigid and dangerous.
To be sure, not all perfectionists are at risk of suicide. Many are high-energy, driven and motivated high achievers, and “the consideration of suicide for them is admitting failure,” says Steven Hendlin, a clinical psychologist based in California. “Perfectionism can be turned into excellence, where the extreme negative aspects of it can be moderated and channeled in a positive way,” he says.
In future studies, Smith suggests, researchers should try to include stressors — achievement-related, like failing an exam or being fired from a job, or interpersonal, such as a romantic breakup — in their analysis to determine how these situations impact suicidal thoughts. He also thinks clinicians need to watch patients closely for signs of high perfectionistic striving, but this is particularly challenging since these types of individuals “often fly under the radar because they hide imperfection or weaknesses.”
Still, perfectionism isn’t a death sentence. It can be addressed over time, and that shift begins with learning how to strive not to be perfect, but to be good enough.
Additional signals for an increased risk of suicide, according to Smith: social withdrawal, a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable or fulfilling, changes in weight, a sudden lack of hygiene and depression.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255