The Deadly Side of Perfectionism

Deadly Side of Perfectionism #suicide #perfectionism

I am pleased to introduce you to Carolyn Ferreira, Psy.D. She has written a fantastic guest blog for us about the link between perfectionism and suicide. I met Carolyn online and was immediately drawn to her insightful posts and our shared interest in overcoming perfectionism.


carolyn ferreira

Carolyn Ferreira, PsyD, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, author, and mental health blogger. She maintains a private practice in Bend, Oregon, where she specializes in helping men and women kick bad habits, strengthen relationships, and overcome life’s many challenges. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking with her dog, trying to garden, scrapbooking, and Red Sox games.


Hello San Jose and beyond!

I must admit that writing this blog post about perfectionism for Sharon has triggered my own perfectionist thoughts and traits. I have procrastinated writing the blog – a hallmark trait of perfectionism. I have also given way too much thought about the topic and discarded several ideas, when really, any one of those ideas would have gotten the job done.

In my quest for the perfect topic about perfectionism, I hit up Google to find interesting studies related to perfectionism. We already know the signs of perfectionism and we already know that perfectionism is linked to poorer mental and physical health. I guess I was looking for something I didn’t already know about perfectionism to share with you all, and I found what I was looking for:

The very strong links between perfectionism and suicide.

In a thorough article published last year, authors Gordon Flett, Paul Hewitt, and Marnin Hiesel summarized numerous research studies on perfectionism and suicide from the last several years. Below, I summarized the highlights from this article.


There is alarming evidence that:

*Perfectionism predicts suicidal thoughts even more so than feelings of hopelessness, which is one of the biggest predictors of suicide.

*A measure of perfectionist attitudes predicted suicidal thoughts for people who were hospitalized for depression 6 months after their hospitalization.

*In a sample of 400 adolescents receiving treatment for depression, perfectionism was associated with suicidal ideation after 6 and 12 weeks of treatment, and perfectionist attitudes also hindered treatment progress.

*A general questionnaire about perfectionism predicted suicidal ideation in a sample of Hispanics/Latinos seeking outpatient therapy services.

*Socially-prescribed perfectionism (the perception that other people are demanding perfection from the individual) was associated with suicidal ideation in a sample of 255 undergraduate students.

*Adolescents who thought about or engaged in harming themselves had higher scores on a measure of socially-prescribed perfectionism than adolescents who did not engage in self-harm.

*In a sample of 200 undergraduate students, perfectionist women experienced suicidal ideation if they were also experiencing relationship distress, whereas perfectionist men experienced suicidal ideation if they were also experiencing academic distress.

*In a sample of 466 international Asian undergraduate students, suicidal ideation was significantly linked with thoughts of falling short of personal standards and falling short of perfectionist demands made by the family.

*According to mothers of 33 boys and young men who had committed suicide, 71% of the boys and young men had exceedingly high demands and expectations for themselves; the mothers also spontaneously offered information that their sons concealed their concerns.


How perfectionism can lead to suicidal thoughts and suicide:

*Many perfectionist’s thoughts are ruminative in nature, meaning the person becomes fixed on his or her thoughts that he or she is not living up to his/her perfect ideal self. These thoughts then pave the way for feelings of inferiority, deficiency, and hopelessness, which are all feelings that are at the root of suicidal behaviors.

*Perfectionists who feel they haven’t lived up to expectations, either their own or someone else’s, may conclude they are a burden and a disappointment to other people, which may then lead to thoughts about suicide.

*Perfectionists may be unwilling to disclose to someone that they are in distress or suicidal because they want to be seen as flaw-free, strong, adequate, and/or in control of their emotions. This unwillingness to disclose limits the likelihood of detection from others and also contributes to an increased sense of isolation and loneliness in the perfectionist.

*The act of hiding their true feelings and selves behind a mask may contribute to a negative self-view, feeling like an imposter, and also remind perfectionists they are far from perfect.

*Due to their conscientious planning abilities, perfectionists may use more lethal means to commit suicide than people who are not perfectionists.

*The perfectionist may be exposed to a hypercritical boss, parent, or significant other, or work in an environment where mistakes are not allowed and expectation are high (e.g., doctors, lawyers, the military).

*Perfectionism is socially desirable and adaptive in certain work and educational systems, which might cause people in those systems to overlook suicidal thoughts in a perfectionist.

*Perfectionists are prone to psychological pain when they have unfulfilled needs in achievement and affiliation.


Lastly, the take-home messages the authors encouraged were:

*Workplaces should take steps to create healthier, less demanding environments where mistakes are permitted and there are fewer demands.

*Resiliency should be increased in perfectionists who live or work in demanding situations through counseling or an employee assistance program (EAP).

*Suicide prevention programs need to be adapted to take perfectionism themes into account.

*Counselors who suspect that a distressed client is more suicidal than they seem to be should probe further by assessing perfectionistic attitudes, such as seeing whether or not the client can talk about mistakes he or she has made without hesitation.

*Treatment interventions should focus on 1) building a strong therapeutic relationship with the perfectionist, and 2) long-term interventions that address core issues related to self and identity.

*With our friends and family, we can be aware when people are portraying life as fine in the midst of a storm. If life seems too perfect for a known perfectionist who should be experiencing some distress due to known setbacks, then this might be a sign he or she is not in fact fine.

The pressure to be perfect can lead to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in the most vulnerable people, but especially among people who are also feeling very hopeless, psychological pain, and socially isolated. The good news is perfectionism does not need to lead to a death sentence. Both Sharon and I specialize in helping perfectionists live a more balanced and compassionate life. Contact us today for a free consultation to see how we can help.



Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.


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