The Alarming New Research on Perfectionism

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Photo: Jamie Grill/Corbis

Perfectionism is a trait many of us cop to coyly, maybe even a little proudly. (“I’m a perfectionist” being the classic response you say in a job interview when asked to name your biggest flaw — one that you think isn’t really a flaw — for example.) But real perfectionism can be devastatingly destructive, leading to crippling anxiety or depression, and it may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide, argues a new paper in Review of General Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. 

The most agreed-upon definition of perfectionist is simply the need to be perfect, or to at least appear that way. We tend to see the Martha Stewarts and Steve Jobs and Tracy Flicks of the world as high-functioning, high-achieving people, even if they are a little intense, said lead author Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University who has spent decades researching the potentially ruinous psychological impact of perfectionism. “Other than those people who have suffered greatly because of their perfectionism or the perfectionism of a loved one, the average person has very little understanding or awareness of how destructive perfectionism can be,” Flett said in an email. But for many perfectionists, that “together” image is just an emotionally draining mask and underneath “they feel like imposters,” he said.

And, eventually, that façade may collapse. In one 2007 study, researchers conducted interviews with the friends and family members of people who had recently killed themselves. Without prompting, more than half of the deceased were described as “perfectionists” by their loved ones. Similarly, in a British study of students who committed suicide, 11 out of the 20 students who’d died were described by those who knew them as being afraid of failure. In another study, published last year, more than 70 percent of 33 boys and young men who had killed themselves were said by their parents to have placed “exceedingly high” demands and expectations on themselves — traits associated with perfectionism.

It doesn’t take much imagination to explain what might drive a perfectionist to self-harm. The all-or-nothing, impossibly high standards perfectionists set for themselves often mean that they’re not happy even when they’ve achieved success. And research has suggested that anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place. “Wouldn’t it be good if your surgeon, or your lawyer or financial advisor, is a perfectionist?” said Thomas S. Greenspon, a psychologist and author of a recent paper on an “antidote to perfectionism,” published in Psychology in the Schools. “Actually, no. Research confirms that the most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way,” he continued. “Waiting for the surgeon to be absolutely sure the correct decision is being made could allow me to bleed to death.”

But the dangers of perfectionism, and particularly the link to suicide, have been overlooked at least partially because perfectionists are very skilled at hiding their pain. Admitting to suicidal thoughts or depression wouldn’t exactly fit in with the image they’re trying to project. Perfectionism might not only be driving suicidal impulses, it could also be simultaneously masking them.

Still, there’s a distinction between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence, Greenspon said. Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety. “Perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect,” he said. Because the one thing these people are decidedly not-perfect at, research shows, is self-compassion.

If you have perfectionistic tendencies, Flett advises aiming the trait outside yourself. “There is much to be said for feeling better about yourself by volunteering and making a difference in the lives of others,” he said. If you’re a perfectionist who also happens to be a parent, it’s even more important to get your inner Tracy Flick under control, because research suggests that perfectionism is a trait that you can pass down to your kids. One simple way to help your kids, he suggests, is storytelling. “Kids love to hear a parent or teacher talk about mistakes they have made or failures that have had to overcome,” he said. “This can reinforce the ‘nobody is perfect and you don’t have to be either’ theme.”

It’s important to address as early as possible, because the link between perfectionism and suicide attempts is a particularly dangerous one. In a sad twist of irony, once a perfectionist has made up his mind to end his own life, his conscientious nature may make him more likely to succeed. Perfectionists act deliberately, not impulsively, and this means their plans for taking their own lives tend to be very well thought-out and researched, Flett and colleagues write. To drive the point home, they quote the wife of a Wyoming man who died via suicide in 2006, who told the Jackson Hole News & Guide, “He was very deliberate. He was a perfectionist. I have been learning that perfectionism plus depression is a loaded gun.”