Does Perfectionism Increase Suicide Risk?

A man regards his portrait hanging on the wallThe quest for a perfect life can be a fruitless and sometimes destructive journey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40,000 people commit suicide in the United States every year, and at least some of them may be doing so as a result of their unreasonable expectations about perfection. For some people, perfectionism increases self-loathing and may even play a role in suicide, according to a new study.

The Destructive Nature of Perfectionism

Some career paths demand a high degree of precision, and the study’s authors speculated that people in these professions might also display a higher degree of perfectionism. Surgeons, for example, have little room for error when operating on vital organs; a lawyer who incorrectly cites a court ruling could lose a case; even small errors can lead to serious building failures for architects. Researchers characterize job-based pressure for perfectionism as socially prescribed perfectionism. Unlike students who endlessly drill data points or parents who pressure themselves to create the perfect Halloween costume, professionals who work in some jobs may feel that they’re required to be perfect.

The study emphasizes that this pressure for perfection leads to perfectionist self-presentation and self-concealment—conscious efforts to appear perfect to others. Researchers found that people working in jobs that demanded perfection had higher rates of perfectionistic image management, as well as higher rate of perfection-related suicide. They conclude that perfectionism might play a more significant role in suicide than was previously suspected.

Overcoming Perfectionism 

While this study looked at the role of perfectionism in a small set of jobs, virtually anyone can feel pressure to be perfect. This could increase suicide risk. If you’re concerned about your own perfectionistic tendencies, therapy can help. Some other strategies that can help include:

  • Noticing flawed thinking. For example, many perfectionists engage in black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking. Allowing room for some gray can make it possible to feel ok about work that’s good but not perfect.
  • Replacing demanding and demeaning self-talk with realistic thinking that emphasizes that no one is perfect and that failure is a necessary part of the learning process.
  • Taking the perspective of others. By seeing yourself the way loved ones see you, you may be able to abandon the perpetual quest for perfection.
  • Consciously abandoning perfectionistic behaviors so that you can get practice at reducing perfectionistic tendencies. For example, you might leave one area of your house messy or commit to spending less time on a project that would usually take longer.
  • Setting realistic goals, and breaking those goals into smaller chunks.

References:

  1. How to overcome perfectionism [PDF]. (n.d.). Anxiety BC.
  2. Perfectionism is a bigger than perceived risk factor in suicide: Psychology expert. (2014, September 25). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140925100923.htm

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  • Georgina

    Georgina

    September 30th, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    I have felt like this before
    like I will never be able to live up to the standards that I have established for mysself and thinking about how this makes me look in the eyes of others.
    It isn’t fun to think about letting yourself down much less letting someone else down because you have failed for whatever reason to think that you are meeting those lofty goa;s.
    It feels pretty depressing to think that this is what you want for yourself but that you aren’t talented enough, smart enough, the list goes on and on, to ever achieve those ideals.

  • Eddie

    Eddie

    September 30th, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    Taking the time to actually see yourself the way that friends and family see you could be a fantastic start for letting go of all of those perfectionist goals that you have and start to see that they way you are right now at this moment is absolutely fine. I know that we all want to look better and feel better and be better, but there are times when good enough is just that, good enough.

  • zoe

    zoe

    October 1st, 2014 at 4:01 AM

    I can see where you are going with this theory, but in my mind don’t you think that there are many perfectionists who would actually see suicide as a failure, that they did not succeed, and that they theresore are not living up to the standards that they have set for themselves?
    I know that there is some skewed thinking when it comes to committing suicide anyway, and I don’t mean any of this to be negative, I only want someone who is considering this to get some much needed help form someone that they can trust.

  • michael t.

    michael t.

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    You end up in certain jobs and career paths because your perfectionist tendencies, so I think that there is probably a pretty good understanding that there are some careers out there that will be more demanding and which will require more from you. Those who are perfectionists I think seek that out because htis is their outlet, their way to shine at what they are good at and to hopefully share that expertise and skill with other people. The sad thing aboutt hsi is that if they experience on little setback or failure most of the are going to be the ones to take this very hard and could have a difficult time accepting that with grace and move on. I think that these are the people that we need to look out for because they are the ones who could very easily get sucked into the misconception that the only way to get out of that is through suicide because they then see not the misstep as the failure but themselves as a person.

  • Mona

    Mona

    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:45 PM

    allowing for those shades of gray is what can be so challenging for those of us who do have these types of perfectionistic tendencies. for most of us it is all or nothing, and there is nothing in between hich will make us happy.

  • Creighton

    Creighton

    October 7th, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    it seems to me that suicide would feel like giving up to someone with these tendencies and that they wouldn’t want to be seen in this way

  • Diane

    Diane

    March 31st, 2015 at 8:38 PM

    My partner is a perfectionist only if it benefits him.
    Example…his house is perfect that he lets out to holidays, not a blade of grass remains out of place, it looks like a show house and is frightened of letting it to people who might not care for it properly.Whilst, he might be asked to look after another persons house, but dosent care much as it’s not benefitting him. It’s a rental business and his house and was asked to manage it as his track record was perfect regarding his own rental property.
    He lived with me, rent free, bills paid but he couldn’t care less what state imy house was in was in and fell down on the job because he considered what he did ( basics, ie tidying garden etc, a real onerous occupation.) and he wasn’t beenpaid but just lived there and this was supposed to be to cover that.
    He was not happy with my luck as people still came even though it wasn’t up to his standards. He hyjacked workmen pemployed to do stuff that he hadn’t done, saying they were useless, but didn’t want to do the job that needed doing. , but interfered with them so they didn’t come back.o
    He is now in deep depression living with a senile mother and is so tired he dosent want to even visit my property that he lived I for fifteen years. He only talk about himself and if he thinks I am getting through with my small property that I rent and live in…he says I should a quit. I don’t think he likes it that I am managing. He is now sleeping on his mothers couch, keeps his clothes in the car, as her house is falling down and he dosent want to help improve it as it’s not his…he has to pay the rent, where he dosent even have a bedroom….and yet the house he rents you can eat off the floor. His mother has dementia real bad, and can’t be left. His sister is there and helps but still has an active social life as he is always there. He is tired constantly and can do very little other than the basics right now. He will hardly meet me and says he wants to…is there any hope…I want to help but he won’t let me. I don’t visit as they don’t want to meet me….jealousy and fear that I might actually take him away…we have no relationship really….every excuse comes up but basically he’s in a rut and I fear he’ll become like his mother and sister who have no money and no home of their own…they rent, owe thousands in back rent and if it wasn’t for him they would be evicted. The mother is 90, the sister 62 and he is 59.
    HELP

  • Diane

    Diane

    March 31st, 2015 at 8:56 PM

    I should have said. Regarding first example, he lost management of that owners house, because, basically, he didn’t care what state it was in.

  • Rosalina

    Rosalina

    July 6th, 2015 at 8:34 PM

    This is such a wonderful post; I completely identify with Kaleigh. I try day after day to overcome my crazy body issues, the constant negative self-talk, the strong desire to have a body free of imperfections. I don’t want to be mean to myself, but it’s a hard habit to break. I would be so sad if I have a daughter someday that felt about her body the way that I feel about mine. I hope that I can continue to improve how I treat myself and remember that I am beautiful, strong and AWESOME JUST THE WAY THAT I AM!!!!!

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