Mental Health

Perfectionists, Especially Doctors, Architects, And Lawyers, Are At Higher Risk Of Suicide

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A new study finds perfectionism to be a bigger risk factor for suicide than previously thought, especially for those in demanding professions, such as doctors and architects. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

While you may pride yourself on being a perfect cook as well as a perfect teacher, a psychologist might see your need to be the very best at everything you do as a major handicap. In fact, perfectionists are often so unhappy and hopeless, they sometimes develop eating disorders, and, in the most drastic of cases, they may become suicidal.

Now, a new study from York University delves deeper into the connection between perfectionism and self-harm and finds this personality trait to be a bigger risk factor when it comes to self-destruction than previously thought. “Perfectionism contributes to lethal suicide behaviors,” the authors noted in their published research.

Are you a perfectionist?

Perfectionists set excessively high personal standards for themselves and then harshly evaluate their performance based on these benchmarks. Often, perfectionists believe it’s their parents, bosses, or spouses who expect them to be perfect. Sometimes, they impose their high standards on everyone else and so develop unrealistic expectations of other people. Others tend to see perfectionists as harsh and unforgiving — rigid and unkind people — though the truth on the inside is they are vulnerable people who lack resilience. In short, perfectionism is not a very attractive personality trait and should be seen as pitiable in that it is strongly related to self-harm. If you suspect you might fit into this category, this online test, will tell you if you’re in the ballpark.

For the current study, York University Psychology Professor Dr. Gordon Flett and his co-authors studied the most recent data concerning suicide and perfectionist tendencies and highlighted their concerns. They begin by noting how physicians, lawyers, and architects, whose occupations emphasize precision, are at a higher risk for perfectionism-related suicide. In fact, suicidal thoughts may often be linked to external pressures. In fact, they created a concept, socially prescribed perfectionism, to describe someone who is exposed, through work or through friends, to relentless demands to be perfect. The authors believe socially prescribed perfectionism is linked to hopelessness and suicide.

“We summarize data showing consistent links between perfectionism and hopelessness,” said Flett, adding, “[Perfectionists] also tend to experience hopelessness, psychological pain, life stress, overgeneralization, and a form of emotional perfectionism that restricts the willingness to disclose suicidal urges and intentions.”

This means a perfectionist’s need for a flawless self-presentation in the world combined with a need to conceal any pain or shortcomings may lead to a suicide that occurs without warning. And, as one might expect, perfectionists don’t just attempt suicide willy nilly, they often come up with thorough and precise plans to destroy themselves.

More than 800,000 people commit suicide every year while many more attempt their final end. According to the World Health Organization, it was the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 29 globally during 2012. In the United States during 2009, the most recent statistical year, suicide accounted for 36,891 deaths and so ranked as the tenth leading cause of death among people older than 10. If we are to believe Flett and his co-authors, many of these unhappy people may have felt driven to it by the demands of perfectionism.

Source: Flett FL, Hewitt PL, Heisel MJ. The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology. 2014.

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