We all know someone who is obsessed with trying to be perfect at everything. On the outside, they appear type A, meticulously organized, and someone who sets high standards for themselves. Now, researchers from the University of Ontario in Canada suggest perfectionism could kill you — it could lead to suicide ideation.

Upon analyzing numerous studies on perfectionist tendencies and elevated suicide risk, the researchers found 13 out of 15 different measures of perfectionism had associations with increased suicidal thoughts. The compilation of studies covered 15 of the different definitions and ways that exist to measure perfectionism, which was expressed mainly in the following ways: placing excessive expectations on oneself; feeling the pressure from others (including parents or society at large); or holding other people to perfectionistic standards. Perfectionism linked to concerns about meeting others' expectations were linked to more suicide attempts, while holding others to high standards, and being tidy and organized, did not relate to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

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Perfectionism defined as feeling the weight of others' expectations was correlated with suicidal thoughts in longitudinal studies that followed participants over time and that controlled their baseline levels of suicidal thought. In other words, the concept of feeling incapable of living up to others' standards is part of the perfectionist personality that puts people at risk.

In the study, published in the Journal of Personality, the researchers wrote: “Perfectionists are their own worst critics; good enough is never enough."

They added: "Consequently, the typical perfectionist is locked in an endless loop of self-defeating over-striving in which each new task is another opportunity for harsh self-rebuke, disappointment, and failure."

The researchers analyzed 45 studies, involving collectively 54 samples, rounding out to over 11,700 participants. A total of 48 samples were cross-sectional (measures only taken once) and six were longitudinal studies, which measured whether perfectionism may precede suicidal thoughts or behaviors. The data seem to be consistent with case histories and theoretical accounts that imply "people high in perfectionism appear to think, behave, perceive, and relate in ways that have suicidogenic consequences."

Previous research has found a link between people who have taken their own lives and the personality trait. In a 2007 study, researchers interviewed friends and family of people who had recently committed suicide. More than half of those who killed themselves were described as perfectionists by their loved ones, without being prompted to do so. When it comes to gender, a 2013 study found more than 70 percent of 33 boys and young men who committed suicide placed exceedingly high demands and expectations on themselves, which are aspects of perfectionism.

Despite the wealth of data on perfectionism and suicide ideation, researchers believe there is a need for more longitudinal research; more research with diverse groups (most incude White Western people); and more research that examines whether perfectionism adds a risk even after taking into account risk factors like depression.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with over 44,000 Americans taking their own lives each year. About 12 people harm themselves for every reported death by suicide, but we’re not able to distinguish intentional suicide attempts from non-intentional self-harm behaviors. Yet, surveys suggest at least one million people in the U.S. engage in intentionally inflicted self-harm each year.

Perhaps personality traits should be analyzed to better structure intervention methods for these individuals. It could be a perfectionist is more likely to have suicidal thoughts, and actually follow through, because their natural conscientiousness will allow them to succeed. Therefore, it's imperative to further explore this link closely to better counteract the possible effects of perfectionism on mental health.

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Others may find it difficult to assess the difference between perfectionism and excellence, but no one is perfect, and none of us should strive to be.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with someone now at 1-800-273-8255 or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.

Source: Smith MM, Sherry SB, Chen S et al. The Perniciousness of Perfectionism: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Perfectionism-Suicide Relationship. Journal of Personality. 2017.

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