A total of 13 out of 15 perfectionist traits are linked to a higher risk of suicide, researchers have found.
Many of us might casually describe ourselves as perfectionists. Some might feel a sense of pride in saying you're obsessed with getting the best results. But more than 50 years of research has found a systematic link between perfectionism and suicide. Studies have shown that more than half of people who commit suicide are described by family and friends as having felt a desire to be perfect.
There are several major components of perfectionism. The first is perfectionist strivings, which means feeling an internal pressure to be perfect. Second is perfectionist concerns, which means feeling the pressure from outside, from family or society in general.
Third – one of the only elements of perfectionism not associated with suicide – is other-oriented perfectionism. This is a "dark" aspect of perfectionism, more closely linked with traits like psychopathy. This is very much the exception to the rule, said Martin Smith of the University of Western Ontario, author of a new review of research on perfectionism and suicide.
"Surprisingly, it seems like the vast majority of perfectionism is linked to suicide," Smith told IBTimes UK. "Out of 15 different dimensions of perfectionism, 13 were linked to thinking about suicide."
The only one that wasn't linked to suicide, besides expecting perfectionism from others, was organisation, which is more generally considered a component of conscientiousness. Meanwhile, the type of perfectionism most strongly linked to suicide was feeling the pressure from outside.
"Feeling other people or society in general expect perfection of you was not only associated with thinking about suicide but also related to the number of past suicide attempts. And we know that the strongest predictor of suicide is a prior history of attempts," Smith said.
Suicide isn't the only worrying association with perfectionism.
"Perfectionism places people at increased risk of depression over time. It's linked to eating disorders, including binge eating. We have a new paper coming out showing a link with anxiety. Perfectionist concern is shown to be associated with procrastinating," Smith said.
Other studies show that perfectionists struggle to maintain and benefit from positive and stable social and romantic relationships, in part because of their perfectionist self-promotion, which pushes people away.
Despite all this, there is still a pervasive sense of positivity and pride around perfectionism that doesn't quite fit.
"There's a general problem in terms distinguishing perfectionism from striving for excellence and striving to do one's best, striving to achieve – these are positive things. But the problem begins with striving for perfection.
By its very nature, this is illogical because perfection is often impossible to achieve. If you do achieve it, it won't be easy to tell.
"Although they are seemingly similar things, consciousness and achievement striving undoubtedly are positive traits. But internal or external demands to be perfect is neither adaptive, healthy nor advisable," Smith said.
There are ways perfectionists can go about addressing their problems and the mental health issues that often come with them. This can be particularly difficult for perfectionists, as often part of their condition is wanting to appear perfect. Admitting that they are suffering is often perceived as a weakness, Smith noted.
"There's no pill for perfectionism, but there is recent and promising evidence that cognitive behavioural therapy, as well as interpersonal approaches, can help significantly lower levels of perfectionism. We would encourage anyone who is a perfectionist to seek professional help.
"There's also some evidence that treating associated conditions like social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder can help lower levels of perfectionism."