Pressure to Be Perfect Could Increase the Risk of Suicide

Perfectionist tendencies correlate highly with suicidal thoughts and attempts, according to a meta-analysis of dozens of studies over the last 50 years.

In a paper published in the Journal of Personality, the researchers presented the results of a comprehensive meta-analysis of 45 studies from the past 50 years examining the relationship between perfectionism and suicide. Their analysis called into question the idea that some forms of achievement-driven perfectionism, like academic striving or extreme athletic drive, are healthy.

“Our findings suggest that perfectionism can be deadly, and also that perfectionism is distinct from a ‘conscientious achievement striving,’” lead author Martin Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Western Ontario, told Seeker. “Demanding perfection from yourself is never healthy, adaptive, or advisable.”

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Every 45 seconds, someone in the world commits suicide, and suicide takes more lives each year than homicide or war. While the major drivers of suicide are depression and a sense of hopelessness, perfectionism also plays a role. When families and friends of suicide victims are asked about perfectionist tendencies, between 50 and 70 percent report that “high demands and expectations” were a contributing factor.

While the perfectionism problem is well known in psychology, some questions remain. Prior studies examining the link between perfectionism and suicide have been small, said Smith, leading to inconsistent and even contradictory claims about what kinds of perfectionism are most dangerous. That’s what Smith and his colleagues set out to clear up with their meta-analysis, the largest such study to date.

Researchers have identified 15 different dimensions of perfectionism, including self-inflicted concern about living up to impossibly high standards, constant fear of making mistakes, and an external pressure to be perfect.

It turned out that nearly all dimensions of perfectionism correlated with higher rates of suicidal thinking and suicide attempts, but that external pressure proved to the “most pernicious,” said Smith. When groups of individuals are tracked over time, it’s external pressure from overly critical and demanding parents or bosses that shows the clearest correlation with both suicidal thoughts and past attempted suicides.

“That’s really alarming,” said Smith, “because the strongest predictor of a completed suicide is the number of prior attempts.”

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Smith’s meta-analysis also rejected the idea put forward by a handful of previous studies that certain kinds of academic or athletic perfectionism can lead to positive outcomes.

“Our argument is that the costs of perfectionistic strivings pale in comparison to any benefits,” said Smith. “They might have higher marks at school, but they’re also depressed or even suicidal.”

The good news is there’s help available. The global suicide rate fell by 26 percent from 2000 to 2012 largely because of greater awareness of mental health issues and resources like suicide hotlines in the United States and elsewhere. The danger, said Smith, is that people with perfectionist tendencies are less likely to admit they have a problem.

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