The Scary Link Between Perfectionism And Suicide, Explained

People who lived through the great wars are known today for being hardworking and tough and are fondly regarded as the “Greatest Generation.” They were succeeded by the “baby boomers” who are applauded for their social concerns that spurred them to start the Civil Rights Movement. Then followed “Generation X”, the eternal cynics – non-conforming, yet undeniably innovative.

And then we have our generation – the “Millennials.” The burning desire to work for meaning instead of money and our love for the environment aside, we are also known for our constant obsession with perfectionism.

With self-improvement being our chief motto and seemingly doting parents and encouraging bosses often instilling strong messages like “you are capable of so much”, it’s never a bad thing to put in some extra effort at giving something our best shot. Sadly enough, it never just ends there. And while we anxiously wonder with every passing day, whether we will ever really be “good enough”, researchers have been meticulously taking notes, declaring that we may be putting ourselves and our happiness at a huge risk.

Perfectionism Can Be Deadly,
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Says Research

A group of researchers at the University of Ontario decided to call into question the idea that certain forms of achievement-driven perfectionism, such as extreme athletic drive and academic striving, are healthy. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality, these very researchers found a strong link between striving to achieve perfectionism and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.1

Details Of The Study

A study was carried out to find a link between perfectionism and suicide thoughts and attempts.

The researchers didn’t collect any new data. Instead, they did a meta-analysis involving 45 previous studies, using information from 54 samples, rounding out to 11,747 participants. The idea behind executing a meta-analysis was to identify which aspects of perfectionism, if any, show the strongest connection with thoughts of suicide and actual

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suicide attempts.

Findings Of The Study

5 dimensions of perfectionism were identified, out of which 13 were linked with an increased risk of suicide.

  • The researchers identified 15 different definitions and ways of measuring the concept of perfectionism. These were mostly divided into three broad categories – namely, self-inflicted concern about measuring up to impractically high standards, a constant demand for perfection of others, and perceiving others as demanding perfection of oneself.
  • 13 out of the 15 definitions of perfectionism showed a positive association with an increased risk of suicide.
  • Perfectionistic strivings, defined as self-inflicted perfectionism using sky-high personal standards were associated with suicidal thoughts. The people who scored high in perfectionist strivings were found to be satisfied only when their lives were free of all “flaws.”
  • Perfectionistic concerns arising from a constant fear of making mistakes, the pressure of living up to societal demand to be perfect, and perfectionistic behaviors were linked not just to suicide thoughts but also to suicide attempts. People who scored high
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    in this aspect of the study were of the belief that people around them hold impossible expectations for them. Not only that, they also felt a sense of failure when it came to living up to these expectations of perfection that they perceive others demand.
  • The meta-analysis also found small but relevant associations between suicide ideation and actions and having critical, overly demanding parents. The latter has been shown to fuel perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors in children as they grow into adults.2

What Does This Mean?

External pressure is the biggest driver for both suicidal thoughts and past suicidal attempts.

Nearly all definitions of perfectionism are linked to higher rates of suicidal ideas and suicidal attempts. However, it turns out that external pressure from critical, demanding parents, bosses, peers, or significant others is the most dangerous and

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is often found to be the biggest driver for both suicidal thoughts and past suicidal attempts.

This is very alarming because according to the researchers, the more the number of prior suicide attempts, the stronger the prediction of a completed suicide.

The meta-analysis also calls into question the idea that certain kinds of academic or athletic perfection may lead to positive outcomes – a suggestion made by previous studies.3

According to Martin Smith, the lead author of this study, the benefits of perfectionistic strivings, if any, are in no way worth the costs of such behaviors. And while such strivings may certainly fetch students higher grades, or athletes numerous gold medals, they are also exposed to a greater risk of depression or even suicide.

Conclusion

Admitting that an obsession with perfectionism is a problem is a giant leap towards recovery.

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Nearly all of us have at least one person in our social circles who is obsessed with achieving perfection. On the outside, they may seem like the ideal role models – talented, meticulous, and ambitious. Scratch the surface and you’ll quickly find that this is far from the truth.

The good news is that there is plenty of help available thanks to the widespread awareness of mental health illnesses, cognitive behavioral help, and the implementation of suicide hotlines in so many countries. The main obstacle in helping someone obsessed with being a perfectionist, however, is the fact that perfectionists seldom admit to having a problem.

Admitting to needing help is a giant leap towards recovery. If one is brave enough to do that, the battle is already half won.

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