Perfectionism and suicide are linked, finds new study

Suicide claims one life every 45 seconds, according to the World Health Organisation

Olivia Petter
Monday 31 July 2017 12:20
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Suicide is intensely complex and can seldom be attributed to a single factor, however, personality traits can play a significant role, including perfectionism, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario interviewed friends and family of people who had committed suicide and found that 56% of those deceased exhibited a “perceived external pressure to be perfect”.

“Self-generated and socially based pressures to be perfect are part of the premorbid personality of people prone to suicide ideation and attempts,” the study explains.

Similarly, research conducted in 2013 found that 68% adolescents who had committed suicide were known for expressing high demands and expectations, common characteristics of perfectionism.

According to a study in the 1990’s, perfectionism can be defined as having “high standards of performance which are accompanied by overly critical evaluations of one’s behaviour”.

The same study cited the primary hallmarks of the trait as concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, parental criticism, parental expectations, personal standards and organisation.

Common attributes perpetuated by such hallmarks include a sense of worthlessness, setting unobtainable goals, exhibiting an over emphasis on precision and neatness.

The study defined the continuum between suicide ideation (suicidal thoughts, intent and threat) and suicide attempt (whereby actual attempts to take one’s own life are carried out, albeit unsuccessfully) as “suicidality”.

The link between suicide and perfectionism is not revolutionary. In 1995 the late Sidney Blatt highlighted the synthesis in an article for American Psychologist titled "The Destructiveness of Perfectionism" in which he profiled three talented individuals who took their own lives, including the successful British author Alasdair Clayre.

So why is it that striving for perfection can cause somebody to try to take their own life?

Psychologically, perfectionism can be conceptualised as the gap between how one is and how one would like to be i.e. the difference between expectation and reality but exclusively with regards to the self.

Exemplary modes of such perfectionist thoughts, as stated on the Almost Perfect Scale-Revised, include feeling frustrated by a perceived inability to meet a certain set of goals, never being fully satisfied at one’s accomplishments and regularly feeling disappointed after completing a task due to the haunting notion that you could have done better.

Thus, perfectionism can be seen as a barrier to happiness.

It is often cited by specialists as a leading contributing factor in the development of eating disorders too, by means of a relentless desire to be aesthetically superior.

“Perfectionists have a harsh way of relating to a self they often find deficient,” it states.“When people experience their social world as pressure filled, judgmental, and hyper critical, they think about and/or engage in various potential means of escape (e.g. alcohol misuse and binge eating), including suicide.”

The study goes onto explain how perfectionists often struggle to maintain stable relationships, which undoubtedly has its pernicious part to play in inhibiting happiness due to feeling romantically and emotionally unfulfilled and abandoned.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among American adolescents, costing the US economy $51 billion each year.

For more information on suicide and advice on where to seek support, visit NHS.uk.

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