Perfectionism and Suicide! Do They Have a Relationship?

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

“You are a perfectionist, Matthew.” This is the phrase I often heard from my mother and others when growing up. I always took it for granted, I suppose. But comparing myself from that time to who I’ve become today, I feel it may be true about me.

I tried playing sports in elementary and middle school. I wasn’t nimble with my hands and feet, and the other pupils verbalized this fact to me. As I tried to compete, it was always hard to not remain frozen in place. “What if I make the wrong move?” I would often ask myself like these. “What if the others don’t like my attempts?” “How do I know when to score a goal?” “I can’t bear the thought of missing the net, because I know my teammates will get mad and the opponents will laugh.”

I played guitar in high school. I was also itching to be a vocalist. To become a professional one day, I had to sound like those on the radio and television. I had to have the same techniques. I had to play similar-sounding guitar solos. I had to sing similar-sounding trills.

I remember having a guitar teacher who refused to listen to bands who played any simple but popular chord progressions. C major, G Major, E minor, and then back to G could be one. He never listened to the top 50 hits, because they weren’t rhythmically and sequentially complicated enough with arpeggios, finger-picking, and hand-cramping chords. His perception seemed pretty standard to me, so I was always trying to put the cart before the horse by making recherche chord transitions, shapes, and note patterns while still making pleasant swooning sounds. In reality, that is so difficult to do, even the most talented musicians often can’t complicate things while awing the crowd.

Years would pass by before I finally realized that most people don’t care about musical technicalities, and that only simplicity is required for making a powerful musical statement. But to be perfect, I had to appeal to the masses and people like my teacher. I was a mess, lying awake at night, ruminating over all the things I had to learn to make myself sound magical and ethereal. I was only maybe 14 or 15 at the time.

When American Idol first emerged onto the scene, with Simon Cowell, I always felt empathetic disgust for the amazing singers who couldn’t satisfy him. I said to myself, “If they can’t satisfy critics like him, what chance do I have when I can’t even impress my parents? I must become better and I have to do it quickly! I am already a teenager and time is running out if I want to accomplish this dream in my 20’s!” Like they often say, “Life is a marathon and not a sprint.” But I have always wanted to make the sprint, because I must have all the glory before I die.

I filled myself with anxiety trying to become convinced that I had a wide vocal range like Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts or Justin Timberlake or any of the gospel singers I heard in church. I insisted on telling my vocalist teachers and peers that I was a high tenor when they showed me an abundance of evidence that I was a baritone. Maybe I didn’t want to admit it then, but it is usually the tenor who always gets the girl at the end of the show, and I wanted to fit that mold. What a shame!

Needless to say, I never became a professional guitarist or vocalist.  

I have difficulty letting things go when I feel they are still in their imperfect stage. I must strive hard to distract myself away from all the many possible flaws people could find in my work. Once someone detects something I had not foreseen, I suddenly feel the indignant sting. Of course, I must hide that feeling, because I want no one to criticize me for being unable to accept criticism. Acceptance of criticism is part of many groups’ morale today, isn’t it? People may be tempted to call me a narcissist if they find out about my secret war against criticism. At least that is how I view it. I must give no one any suspicion that I could be a liar, a charlatan, a hoaxer, or a feeble-minded individual. I am even nervous admitting this now.

Does Perfectionism Share a Relationship With Suicidality?

Some treat perfectionism as a praiseworthy, iron-willed mission to complete something in a faultless fashion. Others like to use the term perfectionist in a derogatory sense to describe someone who has a punctilious mindset or fondness for fault-finding and is impossible to have as an administrator, chief, spouse, or parent. [7]

Perhaps you would find it impossible, or at least very aggravating, to live with a “neat freak”, someone who always wastes time and energy on keeping every inch of the house spotless and every object straightened and organized. Perhaps you would find it impossible, or at least very aggravating, to work with a McDonald’s manager who insists you position the burger patty in a specific direction on the bun before handing it to the customer, always remember 10 different instructions given at once without writing them on a notepad nor reiterating them, always be in an ebullient mood, work like a machine doing multiple weekly 16 hour shifts, never get tired nor slow down, never drop a piece of food on the dirty floor, and never have a disagreement with your coworkers.

Perfectionism can involve these modes of being and many others, but perhaps can be boiled down to three psychological substrata: 1) The un-moderated need to make errorless actions and choices with one’s performance; to be un-reproachable with one’s talents, triumphs, awareness, and/or intelligence (e.g. work, athletics, arts, school). 2) The un-moderated need to demonstrate a character, behavior, beliefs, values, and emotions that are immune to criticism. 3) Hyper-vigilance and obsession with defects and restrictions in other people, objects, or life experiences, that result in routine struggles to enjoy oneself with whatever said people, objects, or experiences. [7]

The Alaska Suicide Follow-Back Study in 2007 interviewed people who lost family members and friends to suicide. 56% of those deceased friends and loved ones were said to have had perfectionistic traits. A 2013 study reported that 68% of the bereaved people stated their children had “high demands and expectations” when they were alive. [1]

The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) measures three different maladaptive types of perfectionists: 1) self-oriented perfectionists- they impose tremendously high standards on themselves and aim for perfection 2) Socially prescribed perfectionists- they aim for perfection and disproportionate self-criticism because they believe others standardize and demand it 3) Other-oriented perfectionists- they exercise a disproportionate, sharp-tongued attitude toward others for failing to be perfect. [2]

Perfectionism includes a handful of propensities, that were well-reported and well-introduced by Hewitt and Flett in 1991. They are as follows:

“…Concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, parental criticism, parental expectations, personal standards, and organization. Concern over mistakes involves a preoccupation with mistakes to such an extent that performance is either perfect or worthless. Doubts about actions characterize a nagging sense of doubt regarding the quality of one’s performance. Personal standards reflect setting unreasonably high personal standards and goals. Parental criticism and parental expectations encompass perceptions of one’s parents as excessively critical and holding unrealistically high expectations. Organization includes an overemphasis on order, precision, and neatness.” [1]

I imagine that rumination is the predator preying on the perfectionist, as he/she spirals out of control with over-aggressive ambitions in which every new chore and mission offers a chance for unforgiving self-chastisement and discontentment. [8] Good enough is never enough based on the perfectionist’s black-and-white dichotomous thinking. Everything is defined as either ideal or rubbish. Every time he/she misses the mark, that adds another crack in his/her confidence and more inconsolable feelings. If the perfectionist is unstable enough, he/she can be deceived into thinking that death is the best medicine. [9] A lack of positive interpersonal relationships and ego-driven irritants can put the perfectionist in this unstable state. The absence of triumph can subject the perfectionist to unbearable psychological hurt, anguish, soreness, and aching, as reported from Hewitt and Flett in 2002 and reported from Flamenbaum and Holden in 2007. [1]

Conceived by Hewitt in 2003 were the three dimensions of perfectionism: 1) perfectionistic self-promotion, which is announcing and flaunting one’s perfection, 2) nondisplay of imperfection, which is sidestepping any situation that would expose one’s imperfection, and 3) nondisclosure of imperfection, which is refusing any verbal confessions about one’s imperfection. [10]

Sufficient meta-analysis has not been performed on the link between perfectionism and suicidality. However, it appears to me that people such as Hewitt and Flett would illuminate how perfectionism can be relevant in understanding suicide hazards, possibilities, and aftermath.

If perfectionism is not guaranteed to cause suicide in all of its victims, perfectionism can at least fan the flames of “rigid thinking styles, feelings of inferiority, deficiency, hopelessness, self-loathing, loneliness, a sense of isolation, and interpersonal alienation,” which may abet ideas, images, and attempts of suicide. [3] Correlations between perfectionism and suicidal ideations were found in a 2005 study with Klibert, Langhinrichsen-Rohling, and Saito who got 475 undergraduates to participate. Beevers and Miller in 2004 studied 121 inpatients hospitalized for depression and found perfectionism “associated with greater levels of suicide ideation 6 months later.” Other professionals have gone on since the 1990s to study suicide ideation and suicide attempts among various youths, alcohol-dependents, and bullied psychiatric outpatient children. Many correlations were reported, and perfectionism was said to help discriminate between suicide attempters and non-attempters.  But these studies haven’t verified that perfectionism acts as the bridge between suicide ideation and suicide attempts. [3]    

What Are The Origins of Procrastination in Someone?

The etiology of perfectionism has not been completely identified nor understood. Freudian analysis states that the origins are found in intrapsychic conflict or the struggle emerging from the collision of irreconcilable impulses, wishes, drives, or external demands. Such conflicts and struggles trace back to early childhood experiences and perceptions, starting as adaptations to facilitate the child’s safe wandering and trekking through the wilderness of idiosyncrasies and demands from family members and friends. Cognitive theorists emphasize the relationship between the developing person’s disposition, the unique interpretation of his or her experiences, and his/her habitual game plans and gimmicks used to cope with these perceptions (Beck, Freeman, Davis and Associates, 2004). [7]

Specific personality traits may be hereditarily influenced but genetics alone can’t determine the choice of personality traits. Early experiences and perceptions will be the instruments forging intellectual and physical capacities and limitations, temperament, and attention-to-detail skills. [7] This leads me to wonder that if the seeds of perfectionism are planted during childhood, is that done by authority figures routinely showering the child with criticisms rather than moderating them with enough acceptance, affection, and nurturing warmth?

As perfectionism is said to be a component of obsessive personality, its causes go beyond callow and unrefined mental strategies. The illusion of control is needed as a buffer against the anxieties, difficulties, and fragility of life, as proposed by Salzman from 1980. The sophistical set of beliefs needed to prop up the obsessive patient’s illusions has been termed the “myth of control” as supported by Mallinger from 1984:

“I can guarantee myself safe passage through life by maintaining complete 
control in every vital facet of living: control over my emotions and my behavior; control in my relationships and interactions with others; and through the control afforded by alertness and vigilance, I can avoid the various miscellaneous potential dangers in life (serious illness, accidents, injury, etc.)” [7]


Much effort and investments must be spent on upholding the myth of control and perfection, especially by forcefully contriving all of one’s interactions, interests, skills, careers, perceptions, and vocabulary throughout life. But life is always sure to challenge us, and it will contradict the perfectionist’s myth eventually, leaving him/her with anxiety, self-belittlement, and diminished self-esteem. The fear of public scrutiny leaves the perfectionist always fallaciously assuming that the others present are deeply concerned with their behavior, choices, and appearance. Unbeknownst to the perfectionist, even when his/her illusions and myths are kept intact, he/she still pays a self-injurious price of losing the joys of “fulfillment, productivity, creativity, intimacy and spontaneity” that don’t belong with the hunt after a fictional promise of security. [7]

Productivity is not the only benefit to be lost because of perfectionism. The beauty and ease that can be felt during the subjective experience of task performance is ruined by one’s punctilio. Perfectionism creates aversive stimuli or an unpleasant perception of the task. As procrastination accomplishes the removal of the unpleasantness, it is perceived as a positive behavior, and thereby will recur. [7]

In his book titled Whole Again–Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse, Jackson MacKensie identifies a relationship between a perfectionistic self and a false self that protects you against your core wounds by depending on external measures of worth and validation. [6]

The protective, false self came alive at a time when you didn’t have the right emotional kit to enable your healing after facing treachery, disloyalty, rejection, and abuse from parents, partners, or other loved ones. Power and control are what the protective, false self believes is necessary for filling an inner void or taking care of an unfulfilled need from long ago. Power and control are what the protective, false self believes is needed for saving oneself and others. The protective self is regularly and naturally mistaken for “who you are.” This false self seeks after external sources as solutional to problems caused by external events. Victories, dealings, relationships, status-quo, money, shiny apparel, good looks, attention, people-pleasing, excessive amiableness, condolences, sexual intimacy, obsessing over a former lover, stalking others, approval-pursuing, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, delusions of grandeur, daydreaming about revenge, social media, fault-finding, and bitterness are sought after as ultimate solutions. [6]

Through these superficialities we often become persuaded that there is nothing problematic with us and that we have everything demystified. But at some point later, we face disappointment when our innocence is challenged, when we are said to be immature, when our confidence erodes, our jollity is dulled, our persecution is falsified, our pity is proven to be exaggerated, and our valor and heroism are quashed. We find out that we were living an illusion and that we have wounds. [6] You may have observed within yourself some very perturbing contradictions, because of your protective-self wavering between illusions and patterns of virtue and vice.

 
I quote MacKensie as follows: 
“When we tell the protective self, over and over again, ‘I’m fine! I’m good!’ the wounded inner core doesn’t hear or feel that. It’s just the protective self growing stronger and stronger, as the wound fades into numb obscurity, an invisible status quo. Traditional self-help techniques don’t really work because our bodies have blocked us from feeling the parts of ourselves that actually need help. Feeling ‘good’ is more about maintaining a high, not deeply feeling authentic joy.” [6] 

An American Pyschological Association article from 2013 reported that Paul Hewitt was a detractor against the idea that perfectionism is a necessary motivator for goal attainment. Instead, perfectionism has various forms but neither of them are devoid of problems. [4]

Proponents for perfectionism may argue that award-winning athletes didn’t reach the top by aiming low. They had to get broken bones and repair them to become better than everyone else. The business world doesn’t allow for low aiming either. Sales quotas can’t be met, and money markets can’t generate millions of dollars without people pushing themselves beyond their limits and refusing to let weaknesses hinder them. However, people like Paul Hewitt would argue that we must distinguish between being impeccable and being excellent, or even the best. Excellence is achievable whereas impeccability isn’t. [4]

Perhaps the lust for flawlessness leads to the cutthroat business models we see today. This would be my conjecture. 

Imagine the lethal, hellish combination of perfectionism and narcissism in the workplace. To me, it is popular today to assert that many positions of power are held by narcissists, who are reputed to have a sense of entitlement, flourish from the pain of others, are grandiose, and have fantasies of unbounded prosperity, power, exceptional talent and intelligence, beauty, or ideal love. Imagine all your efforts, investments, and energy being spent on fueling a version of perfectionism belonging to someone whose dreams have dimensions of the legendary kind. That person’s other-oriented perfectionism, which kills flexibility, openness, receptiveness, ingenuity, inspiration, and collaboration, will provoke your self-oriented perfectionism, which makes you obsessive and inefficient and compromises your attendance, performance, and morale. [5]

You would be a terrible acolyte to the king, deserving to be beheaded for failing to give enough homage. Thankfully, in today’s world you just get fired from your job just for spilled milk in the break-room. Then, in that case, you may just collapse under the depression and kill yourself for your failed servility to the one who knows everything. He even knows your worth and you have no worth now. Your perfectionism may make you procrastinate, because you are constantly anticipating failure, the one thing you always want to avoid, but you make it happen anyway because of your refusal to meet your deadlines. Again, the one who is above everyone else gets rid of you. [5]

Serial entrepreneur and management consultant, Amanda Neville, wrote an article for Forbes in 2013 titled, Perfectionism is the Enemy of Everything. She once wore perfectionism as “a badge of honor” but discusses her reformed approach in the article: “Nowadays, when I start to feel dissatisfied or angry, I first check in with myself to see if the cause is the fact that a person or situation is different from what I envisioned as ‘perfect.’ I’ve been surprised at how many times that disparity is the culprit underlying my discontent.” [5] 

Paul Hewitt illustrated this with an anecdote about one of his patients, a depressed university student, who was convinced he must have an A+ in a specific class. But the depression and suicidality didn’t subside after he got the A+. The A+ only magnified his imperfections. After seeing how hard he had to work, he then chose to believe that perfection meant he shouldn’t have to work so hard and that victory should be easy. [4]

For those opposing perfectionism, it is an error to say perfectionism is adaptive. Continual focus on defining perfectionism as adaptive really ignores how the context and quality of perfectionism differ from person to person. Wherever perfectionism may be adaptive for one, it will not be adaptive for another. [4]

Dr. Christina Hibbert’s article on the 8 Myths About Perfectionism appears to dovetail with what I just said. People mistakenly believe that perfectionists just simply want to be the best version of themselves, but research separates perfectionism from healthy striving.

People assume that perfectionism leads to success whereas research shows us that success is impeded by perfectionism, because depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis are the most guaranteed results.

People assume that perfectionists only desire positive outcomes, but perfectionists in fact don’t allow themselves to feel positive about the curves and surprising changes that are natural to the process of life.

People assume that perfectionists are born to be leaders, and so their need for control helps to make that happen. On the contrary, perfectionists are out of control as they are too afraid to expose their true selves, made up of strengths and weaknesses, to the world. They feel compelled to control everything around them to provide the illusion of stability. [11]

Again, contrary to the belief that perfectionists are doomed to remain as such, there is actually a way to change. Treatment programs are available for perfectionists. If you or anyone else shows signs and symptoms of perfectionism, seek a licensed therapist. Do not try to diagnose yourself or others.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com

References:

[1] https://cruxpsychology.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Smithetal.2018.522-542.pdf

[2] https://sciencebeta.com/other-oriented-perfectionism-vs-self-oriented-perfectionism/

[3] https://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~klonsky/publications/Perfectionism.pdf

[4] https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.html
[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/amandaneville/2013/05/10/perfectionism-is-the-enemy-of-everything/
[6] Jackson MacKenzie, Whole Again–Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse

[7] https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2009.63.2.103

[8] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225478783_Dimensions_of_Perfectionism_and_Self-worth_Contingencies_in_Depression

[9] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257340821_Trait_perfectionism_dimensions_and_suicide_behavior

[10] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ecc6/27a588c7d2f7ec402fc3352f4d37dfde262e.pdf

[11] https://www.drchristinahibbert.com/perfect-or-fake-8-myths-about-perfectionism-8-truths-to-cure/

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