Striving to Be Perfect Has a Scary Downside

The case for cutting yourself some slack just got stronger.

Striving to do your best in life is always a good move. But there's a big difference between giving a work project or a tricky relationship your all and then moving on and aiming for nothing less than perfection—and the latter may not be healthy or sustainable.

That's the takeaway from some new research, which found that the pressure to be perfect, whether it comes from yourself or your social group, may contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The findings are part of a meta-analysis of previous studies published in The Journal of Personality.

There's no lack of research on the health risks of perfectionism, says lead author Martin Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario. But previous findings have been mixed as to whether the need to be perfect is a risk factor for suicide, a protective factor, or neither.

To get a better big-picture idea, Smith and his colleagues re-analyzed data from 45 of these studies, with a total of 11,747 participants—a mix of undergraduate and medical students, out-of-school adults, and psychiatric patients. Specifically, they looked for links between suicidal tendencies and 15 different dimensions of perfectionism.

The researchers expected some of these dimensions to be associated with an increased risk of suicide, but they were surprised to find that nearly all of them—13 out of 15—had a positive link. Perfectionistic strivings (defined as self-oriented perfectionism and sky-high personal standards) were linked to suicidal thoughts, while perfectionistic concerns (societal pressure to be perfect, concerns over mistakes, doubts about actions, and perfectionistic attitudes) predicted both suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Research shows that people who score highly in perfectionistic striving are only satisfied when their lives feel flawless. "When life events inevitably suggest they are not perfect, suicidal ideation may follow," the authors wrote in their paper. Those with perfectionistic concerns, meanwhile, "believe others hold lofty expectations for them, and feel incapable of living up to the perfection they perceive others demand."

In addition, the analysis also found small, associations between suicidal thoughts and actions and having critical, demanding parents—a condition that has been shown to give rise to children's own perfectionism as they grow into adults. The authors say these results are preliminary and should be studied further.

The analysis didn't find cause-and-effect relationships between perfectionism and suicidal tendencies. And because most participants were Caucasians from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, the findings may not be generalizable to everyone.

But the analysis does seem to back the notion that perfectionists may find the demands placed on them, by themselves and others, unbearable—and they may act on those feelings. Simply put, says Smith, "perfectionism can be deadly."

People who take perfectionism to unhealthy levels only see things in black and white—perfect or flawed—and are unable to take satisfaction in their successes because they're always striving for something better, says Smith. "It's an inability to realize when something is good enough, and to move on to the next thing," he says.

That's different from striving for excellence, Smith points out. If someone really is suffering from the pressure to be perfect, he recommends getting professional help. Unfortunately, he adds, it's not something people can easily turn off.

"There's some recent promising evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy and some other approaches can help lower levels of perfectionism," says Smith. Addressing related problems, like obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety, might help as well.

That's easier said than done, he admits, since perfectionists don't like to talk about their weaknesses and can have trouble relating to other people. But admitting there's a problem is important, he says; it could even save a life.

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