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The Ultimate Price for Perfection:

The Relation Between Suicidal Ideation and Perfectionism

Kelly Ann Haker

October 10, 2008

http://www.sheboyganfalls.k12.wi.us/students/hogue10/07murban/images/LONELINESS3.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                       (www.lonely/image)

Introduction

Most of us have encountered a perfectionist either in school or at the office: the diligent student who makes all A’s and would feel like an utter failure with anything less, the popular girl who always looks flawless, as she spends endless hours in front of the mirror obsessing over her appearance, or the scrupulous colleague who works overtime to write the perfect report.  To the outside world, these individuals give the impression that they are doing something right, as they are inexorably neat, determined, well-groomed, meticulous and successful in their every endeavor.  Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder how these perfectionists hold up both mentally and emotionally.  What will the assiduous student think if s/he is given a B, or how might the young girl react to a bad hair day, or what will happen if the boss asks the coworker for a revision?  Since the 1980s, researchers have been interested in the relationship among certain personality traits and suicidal ideation, particularly perfectionism.  At the core perfectionism is thought of as: “the irrational belief that you and/or your environment must be perfect, while striving to be the best, to reach the ideal, and to never make a mistake” (www.coping.org/perfect).  When perfectionists fail to achieve their unreasonable goals, they turn inward and become excessively self-critical and demoralized; consequently, this endless cycle ultimately leads to lower self-esteem, anxiety and depression, which has led many to postulate that these self-defeating thoughts and negative appraisals may lead to suicidal ideation (www.pt.com/perfect).  If the signs and key risk factors for suicidal behavior are recognized and identified early, it could be a preventable situation.  Thus, it is imperative to gain knowledge and understanding about what predispositions, traits and situations may lead to suicidal ideation so that preventions and early interventions can be established.  Consequently, the question to be addressed is: are individuals who are classified as perfectionists at higher risk for suicidal ideation than the general population?

 

Suicidal Ideation: A Tragic Ending

Double Bracket: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
-Phil Donahue
(www.quote/donahue) 
Suicidal ideation is distinguished from suicidal behavior in that it includes the both the thought and desire to die as well as the actual action toward taking one’s life.  According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2005 over 32,000 deaths were attributed to suicide, as it was identified as the 11th leading cause of death in the United States.  It is estimated that for every successful suicide there are 25 attempts made; as a result, nearly 400,000 people are treated in the hospital for self-inflicted wounds every year, which unquestionably makes suicide a public health concern (www.cdc.gov/datasheet).  Furthermore, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association in August of 2008 revealed that more than 50% of college students have contemplated suicide, which is significantly higher than the rate among the general population: 15.3% (www.msnbc.perfectionism).  Suicidal ideation is clearly overly represented in the university setting, which begs the question: why?  Marano believes that perfectionists are made through societal demands and parental expectations.  Those who become perfectionists in school experience constant stress and pressure related to their academic work and achievements, and they have come to believe that their love and acceptance from others is dependent upon their success.  If they fail to achieve a goal, practical or not, severe psychological problems can ensue, such as anxiety and depression, or taken to an extreme, suicide (www.pt.com/perfect).  While suicidal ideation has previously been linked to feelings of isolation, illness, abuse, hopelessness and depression, the relation between personality traits and suicide is less clear (www.apa.org/manyfaces).  Understanding the risk factors associated with suicidal ideation is critical for two fundamental reasons: to mollify the pain experienced by the individuals and their families who contemplate taking such action and to lessen the eventual monetary cost to the general public.  In 2000, the CDC estimated that the total lifetime cost for self-inflicted wounds was $33 billion dollars, with $1 billion being attributed to hospital bills and the other $32 billion to lost productivity (www.cdc.gov/suicide).  It is apparent that the costs of suicidality are high for the victims, their families and society.  If a link between perfectionism and suicidal behavior is established, then there is a definite place to begin intervening.  It is crucial to know and understand the various features that have been identified as characteristics of perfectionism before looking for a link.  

             

A Multi-Dimensional Trait: Defining Perfectionism

Text Box: “Perfectionism does not exist.  To understand it is the triumph of human intelligence; the desire to possess it the most dangerous kind of madness.” –Alfred de Musset
(www.quote/musset)

Although for the past several decades people have been interested in identifying general characteristics often shared among perfectionists, there is not a universally agreed upon definition of the personality trait.  However, it is well-established that a perfectionist is one who holds exceedingly high standards and is very critical of their abilities and performance (www.coping.org/perfect).  It is generally agreed that it is a multi-dimensional trait, as it often is conceptualized as having both personal and social variables; moreover, several classifications are commonly recognized (www.nytimes.com/health).  Despite congruence on its complexity, there is still substantial debate over a possible beneficial aspect.  Some assert that certain dimensions of perfectionism should be considered positive and adaptive, because these individuals are incredibly motivated, driven and their self-esteem is boosted when they succeed (www.ucalgary.ca/cairns; www.pt.com/flavor); nevertheless, others believe that it should be thought of as exclusively counterproductive, as it wreaks havoc on the lives of perfectionists, because they experience constant stress and distress associated with  unrealistic standards, external pressures and internal demands (www.apa.org/manyfaces; www.boloji.com/perspective).  

Perfectionism has been divided into several different classifications depending on the researcher and their philosophy on the trait.  Perhaps the most widely utilized categorization was developed by Hewitt & Flett, which they called the Multi-Dimensional Perfectionism Scale (www.pt.com/pitfall).  They divided perfectionists into three subgroups: 

1.      Self-oriented: they hold exceptionally high standards for themselves.  They subsequently critically evaluate their work based on these unrealistic expectations.

2.      Socially-prescribed:  they believe others have exceedingly high and impractical expectations of them, which places considerable pressures on them to succeed, because they fear being rejected.

3.      Other-oriented: they have unrealistic expectations for those people around them.  They constantly appraise and assess the quality of others’ work based on these standards.

Randy Frost developed a separate scale that is also known as the Multi-Dimensional Perfectionism Scale, although it is distinct in that it divides the trait into six subscales to measure common features found in perfectionists (www.bbc.co.uk/perfectionism).  While Hewitt & Flett’s seems to be the most widely used measure, Frost’s scale has also been used by investigators as a measure of perfectionism:

1.      Concern over mistakes: extent to which they consider a mistake to equal utter failure

2.      Doubts about actions: degree to which they question their abilities and quality of work

3.      Personal standards: extent to which they have markedly high standards for themselves

4.      Parental expectations: extent that they believe their parents have high expectations

5.      Parental criticism: degree to which they believe their parents are extremely critical

6.      Organization: importance of tidiness, order and organization

While these two scales are most frequently used in scientific research to measure and assess the level at which an individual is considered to be a perfectionist, other people have proposed other classifications, such as “normal” versus “neurotic” perfectionists and “adaptive” versus “maladaptive” perfectionists (www.bbc.co.uk/perfectionism; www.pt.com/flavor).  Overall, it is clear that there is no agreed upon and definitive way to categorize a perfectionist; nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there are several distinct dimensions to the trait and that they each may be related to different emotional, physical or psychological outcomes, including suicidal ideation. 

 

What’s the Link: Suicidal Ideation and Perfectionism

Text Box: ”Whether it is for riches or thinness, fitness or knowledge or fame, the desire for perfection shuts out all other people and pleasures one by one.  It is an addiction like cocaine: even more deadly in proportion to its purity.”
–F. Forrester Church
(www.boloji.com/perspective)
Now that both suicidal ideation and perfectionism have been amply described, and the potentially disastrous outcomes have been discussed, there is a solid foundation for which to explore the prospective association between the two features.   While only some people would assert that perfectionism can have advantageous features, there does appear to be extensive agreement on the internet that it certainly can lead to extremely harmful, if not fatal, consequences.  Perfectionists are incredibly self-critical, as they tend to down play their accomplishments and exaggerate their mistakes, all of which can lead to frustration, anger, guilt and feelings of failure and hopelessness.  Furthermore, as the stresses and pressures pile up and their coping abilities are depleted, suicide might seem like the only way out.  Specifically, the prevalent claim made about perfectionists is that their negative self-evaluations and incredibly high expectations lead to distress and dysfunction, which puts them at an increased risk for suicidal ideation.

In an article from Psychology Today, Drapkin carefully examines perfectionism, and while she acknowledges that these individuals often are accomplished individuals with a strong drive for success, she is quick to point out that they never seem satisfied (www.pt.com/pitfall).  She states that this lack of contentment has been found to place them at an increased risk for certain psychological disorders, such as depression, divorce, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicide, although there is not a study cited for this claim.  She postulates that the higher risk of suicidality in perfectionists may be related to what Gordon Flett has termed the “all or nothing” attitude.  If the individual does not appraise a particular situation to be just right, the perfectionist simply will opt to get rid of it or change it.  For example, if their outfit does not look right, they will change clothes, or if their handwriting is sloppy, they will re-write the notes; therefore, if their lives are not perfect, and they do not perceive a way of changing it, then they irrationally conclude that it is not worth living.  Drapkin references the MPS scale developed by Hewitt & Flett in which she briefly describes the negative consequences associated with each dimension.  While this article in a psychology magazine provides interesting insight into a personality trait, one should remain skeptical of the information due to a lack of empirical evidence provided to support the claims. 

An article in the New York Times describes how perfectionism can be beneficial in some instances, but it can also certainly become counterproductive when it leads to dissatisfaction with self and sadness (http:/nytimes.com/perfectionism).  In support of this claim, the author makes reference to two individuals who had previously committed suicide as prime examples of the potentially tragic outcome of perfectionism: Professor Clayre, who was described as an exceptionally intelligent and successful man as well as Vincent W. Foster, Jr., the deputy White House counsel.  These men were high achievers, but their incessant drive accompanied with a fear of failure became too much to bear, as they both took their own lives.  The author continues on to describe a study, although not cited, that showed that perfectionism was more strongly linked to suicide than was a feeling of hopelessness, which is a feature that has persistently been linked to suicidality (www.cdc.gov/RF).  Dr. Paul Pilkonis, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that perfectionists will often appraise even their small achievements as failures, because it did not reach their unreasonable expectations.  As a consequence of their impractical standards, perfectionists are never content or happy with their lives, which can lead to disastrous results.  The article appeared in the New York Times, and its title Higher Suicide Risk for Perfectionists likely captured the attention of the readers.  The article addresses a potentially life-threatening situation, and so to place it in a paper with a wide-distribution of readers is important, because many probably do not have easy access to scientific journal articles and findings to be informed that an often “praised” trait by parents and schools can potentially lead to tragic ends.

Another informative site comes from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which takes a different approach by classifying perfectionists into two groups: “normal” or “neurotic” (www.bbc.co.uk/perfectionism).  The distinguishing feature between these individuals is that those defined as “normal” are not considered to be at higher risk for developing psychological, interpersonal or emotional problems; rather, it is a constructive and adaptive personality characteristic, leading these individuals to aim high and achieve greatness.  On the contrary, “neurotic” perfectionists are those who are unable to endure a mistake or a failure, leading to frustrations, negative self-evaluations and feelings of sadness.  While this site does not offer any specific scientific study to support its claim, it points out that just because one may be a perfectionist that does not mean that they will unquestionably suffer distress.  It continues by describing the scale developed by Randy Frost, so that readers have an indication of the features of their perfectionism that may be detrimental.  This is an educational site that offers useful information on a serious topic, which may prompt the readers to seek more information, but does not lead one to assume that perfectionism is inherently a damaging personality trait.

An article in the ScienceDaily asserts that perfectionism is associated with exceedingly high expectations, and at extremes stage it becomes disadvantageous because these individuals feel incredibly high levels of stress (www.sdperfect.com).  Moreover, it goes so far as to suggest that at excessive levels it should be considered a disorder analogous to ones acknowledged in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and personality disorders, because perfectionists have been associated with experiencing distress and dysfunction.  To further support the claim, the article quotes one of the developers of the MPS, who described how the personality trait is often associated with various psychological and emotional problems, including depression and suicidality.  The article concludes with “top ten signs you’re a perfectionist,” which provides readers a brief measure and indication of their own perfectionist tendencies.  Similar to the newspaper article, this information can be essential to the general public so that people become aware of the potential consequences of perfectionism, which is often encouraged by society and parents. 

Distinct from a news article, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, Dr. Sharon Cairons, concedes that perfectionism certainly can lead one to success through an incredible drive to achieve, but she points out that this excessive motivation is often accompanied with severe consequences (www.ucalgary.ca/cairns).  She makes reference to Hewitt & Flett’s classifications, and she outlines the various disorders that they frequently experience.  She describes how self-oriented perfectionism has been associated with eating disorders, mood disorders and interpersonal problems; socially-prescribed perfectionism is related to anger, depressed mood and anxiety; lastly, other-oriented perfectionism tends to be linked with poor interpersonal relationships.  This information is provided on a counseling center’s website at a university, which is significant because as indicated previously, college students have a much higher rate of suicide than the general population, so this information may be particularly pertinent to students.  However, it is interesting that there are no specific research studies sited to backup the assertions, so one must remain skeptical. 

            In what appears to be a personal viewpoint on perfectionism, which does not come from a psychologist, Jagtiani explains that these men and women are never happy with themselves, because of their inability to accept their flaws.  They can focus on their imperfections, which ultimately brings about various levels of anger and sadness (www.boloji.com/perspective).  These feelings of inadequacy can bring a perfectionist to be a victim of suicide.  Similar to Dr. Pilknois, she notes that these men and women often focus on their failures while disqualifying their accomplishments.  The evidence she uses for her assertion comes from a story of a young girl who had committed suicide.  In the wake of her death, it became apparent that she possessed the classic signs of a perfectionist: she had exceedingly high expectations for herself, strove for greatness, and was dissatisfied with her life and herself.  Perhaps the only way that she saw out was through suicide.  Jagatiani concludes that the aspiration and drive for success is not inherently destructive, but it is when it becomes an obsession that leads to depression and self-critical evaluation that it is harmful.  Jagatiani describes herself as a freelance journalist, and in this article she offers her own perspective on a critical issue, although her motivation is unclear.  Importantly, she offers no scientific research to support her claims, so one must be critical of the article. 

Although individuals on an array of internet sites, which vary from a counseling psychologist to a blogger to the New York Times, disagree about some features and consequences of perfectionism, the prevailing assertion from all of the sites is:  regardless of the potential benefit of perfectionism, it most certainly can be related to distress and dysfunction, which can lead to suicidal ideation.  However, though all these sources make such an assertion about a link between perfectionism and suicidal ideation, the evidence for this claim is not always clear or research-based.  Thus, it is essential to explore the scientific literature on this question to determine if it can be backed by empirical data. 

 

http://lancashirecare.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/sadness1.jpgWhat Do the Experts Say: Literature Review

Text Box: (www.image/sad) It was not until the 1980s that scientific research on suicide really began to address the relationship between personality traits and suicidal behavior.  The interest in perfectionism’s association to suicidal behavior took off in the 1990s, as there was a 300% increase in the number of research studies that addressed this issue (O’Connor, 2007).  Researchers have sought to identify both potential adaptive and maladaptive features of the trait, and while results have been wholly inconsistent with regards to any beneficial aspect of perfectionism, investigators have persistently found evidence for a relationship between particular dimensions of perfectionism and suicidal ideations.  An overview of the scientific literature to date will highlight these divisive findings. 

In 1994, Hewitt, Flett & Weber conducted a study in which they sought to ascertain whether there was a link between perfectionism and suicidal ideation in a clinical population and whether the trait was a significant predictor of suicidal behavior.  The study consisted of 42 men and 49 women with a mean age of 35.54 years.  Moreover, the participants included both inpatients and outpatients who had been diagnosed with diverse disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, anxiety and personality disorders.  Using four independent questionnaires, the researchers measured participants’ perfectionism tendencies, level of depression, feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation (the MPS, the Beck Depression Inventory, the Hopelessness Scale and the Scale for Suicide Ideation and Ratings of Suicidal Thoughts, respectively).  From this data, the researchers calculated correlations among the variables.  Overall, the results supported their hypothesis: those scoring high on both the socially-prescribed and self-oriented scales of the MPS had significantly higher levels of suicidal ideation.  Importantly, the relationship still was significant after controlling for both hopelessness and depression in the participant.  Thus, this study provides evidence to suggest that perfectionism is exclusively a maladaptive trait that is associated with increased levels of suicidal ideation. 

However, three years later Hewitt, Newton, Flett & Callander conducted a study in which they were looking to find a relationship between suicidality and perfectionism, while again controlling for hopelessness, in a group of 66 young psychiatric patients who ranged from grades 6 through 12 (1997).  The participants were all inpatients who had been diagnosed with such disorders as depression, adjustment disorders, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.  The researchers used the Child and Adolescent Perfectionism Scale (based off of the MPS), the Suicide Ideation Questionnaire, and the Hopelessness Scale for Children to assess the participants’ type of perfectionism, measure the level of suicidal ideation, and degree of hopelessness they felt.  Correlating the measures, they found interesting results: socially-prescribed perfectionists again reported significantly higher levels of suicidal ideation; however, those identified as self-oriented perfectionists did not.  These results were inconsistent with their findings from 1994, although it is crucial to note that the sample clinical populations are different with the former being adults and the latter being adolescents.  In this case, evidence for a harmful dimension of perfectionism was found, but the results also suggest that there may be an aspect of perfectionism that is not destructive, such as when individuals hold internally high expectations (self-oriented).

In 2000, Hamilton & Schweitzer sought to determine the relationship between perfectionism and suicidal ideation, but rather than use a clinical population, they sampled 405 university students.  The participants were given the Multi-dimensional Perfectionism Scale developed by Frost as well as the General Health Questionnaire, which was used to assess their level of psychological distress and suicidal ideation.  They found that those who had reported suicidal ideation also showed higher levels of perfectionism on the MPS-F; the degree to which an individual was a perfectionist (low, moderate, high) was positively related to their suicidal ideation score.  Interestingly, by splitting the perfectionists into two subgroups, passive and active, the researchers found that only those described as passive perfectionists were at an increased risk for suicidal ideation, while the active perfectionists were those who derived satisfaction and contentment from accomplishing goals.  The passive perfectionists scored high on the “doubts about action” and “concern over mistakes” subscales, as they tended to question their abilities, feared failure and were never feel satisfied with their work.  These results were in accordance with Hewitt et al. study from 1997 that did not find a relationship between self-oriented perfectionists (corresponding to active perfectionists), but did for socially-prescribed (similar to passive perfectionist), such that they both provide evidence that there may be constructive and adaptive features to perfectionism, not all leading to psychological distress.  

In 1996, Dean & Range proposed that the six stage escape theory of suicide originally postulated by Baechler in 1980 could be applied to the behavior of perfectionists.  Using this theory, they conducted a study to determine whether being a perfectionist who is under high stress, anxious, depressed, feeling hopeless and reported lower reasons for living was associated with suicidal behaviors.  The figure to the right was taken from Dean & Range’s paper, and it is an illustration of the pathway to suicidality that their hypothesis suggests.  The researchers recruited 168 undergraduate students, 52 males and 116 females, in which they gave 7 different questionnaires to measure each of these features, which they then used to calculate correlations among the variables.  Their most pertinent finding was that socially-prescribed perfectionism was related to suicidal ideation, but that neither other-oriented nor self-oriented perfectionism were significantly correlated.  Their findings provide evidence, like the 1997 Hewitt et al. paper, that the not all dimensions of perfectionism are associated with maladaptive outcomes in every situation; however, under considerable stress, a perfectionist’s perceived external standards can lead to suicidal behavior, as the figure proposes.  

Donaldson, Spirito & Farnett agreed with the previous findings that perfectionism was not maladaptive in every situation, as they hypothesized that it could associated with positive outcomes when the individual is motivated to achieve and gets joy from his or her success; however, they believed that obsessions and doubts over one’s ability would lead to serious effects (2000).  Hopelessness has consistently been identified a strong predictor of suicidal ideation, and so these investigators wanted to assess the relationship between perfectionism, depressive cognitions and feelings of hopelessness in suicide attempters.  The participants in the study included 68 adolescents, 17 males to 51 females, all of whom had previously attempted suicide.  They were given Child and Adolescent Perfectionism Scale, Hopelessness Scale for Children and Depressive Experiences Questionnaire for Adolescents.  Correlations of the measurements indicated that self-oriented perfectionism again did not play a role in suicidal ideation.  What is more, socially-prescribed perfectionism, though it has consistently been found to be strongly related to suicidality, was only moderately related to feelings of hopelessness in the sample.  The perfectionist’s negative beliefs about themselves, rather than the standards they perceive are externally placed on them were a much stronger predictor of hopelessness in the sample.  This data provide further evidence that self-oriented perfectionism is not correlated with increased suicidal ideation; moreover, socially-prescribed was only moderately related.  The investigators explain that these findings may reflect the idea that the self-criticism of perfectionists far outweighs any perceptions about standards they may hold, which then makes their negative evaluation a much stronger predictor of suicidal behavior.

            In 2005, Klibert, Langhinrichesen-Rohling & Saito conducted a study to address the divisive findings about whether perfectionism can have adaptive and constructive aspects.  Specifically, they wanted to compare self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionists on various characteristics. The investigators operationally defined adaptive characteristics as self-esteem, self-control and achievement motivation.  Further, they defined maladaptive features as psychological symptoms like depression, suicidal ideation, shame, guilt and anxiety.  They hypothesized that self-oriented perfectionism would be positively correlated with adaptive characteristics and negatively correlated with the maladaptive features; on the contrary, socially-prescribed perfectionism would have the inverse relationships.  To test this, they recruited 475 college students, 139 males and 336 females, in which they gave them 8 separate questionnaires to measure their perfectionism, depression, guilt, shame, anxiety, procrastination, attitudes on life and achievement tendencies, which the researchers subsequently utilized to perform correlations.  They found that self-oriented perfectionism was associated with achievement motivation and self-control, while socially-prescribed perfectionism was related to the maladaptive features; however, they interestingly found that if an individual possess both self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionist traits, they showed higher levels of the maladaptive features.  The investigators reasoned that Hewitt & Flett’s scales could be compared to the dimensions suggested by the BBC article such that “neurotic” and “normal” perfectionists in that self-oriented perfectionism alone was analogous to a “normal” perfectionist, but both socially-prescribed and a combination of socially-prescribed and self-oriented perfectionism was equivalent to a “neurotic” perfectionist (www.bbc.co.uk/perfectionism).  These results give support to the notion that socially-prescribed perfectionism is always related to an increased risk of psychological disorders, including suicidality; moreover, that self-oriented perfectionism can be beneficial, but that when accompanied with the social dimension, it can lead to destructive consequences. 

            It is evident that there are conflicting findings in the literature over whether all dimensions of perfectionism are maladaptive and associated with an increased risk of suicide.  In 2007, Rory O’Connor decided to address this debate by doing a systematic review of the literature in which he compiled the result from 29 different studies.  The studies were mostly correlational, and the research designs varied from cross-sectional, to case-control to a few prospective studies; as a result, a meta-analysis was not possible.  The inclusion criteria for his review were: the study had to have measured both perfectionism and suicidal ideation and had to determine whether the data indicated a link between the two.  O’Connor found that perfectionists described as socially-prescribed perfectionists were persistently found to be related to suicidal ideation cross-sectionally, although the results are inconclusive longitudinally, as only one study employed this design.  Furthermore, findings indicated that socially-prescribed perfectionism could distinguish suicidal ideators from controls in both the general and clinical populations.  Frost’s perfectionism scale was used less frequently in the studies, nevertheless, O’Connor found that concerns over mistakes (CM) and doubts about actions (DA) were associated with higher levels of suicidality in the general population, but this scale was not used to assess a clinical sample.  These findings are consistent with the results from Hamilton & Schweitzer (2000).  As importantly, he also found that the other two dimensions on Hewitt’s scale and the remaining four subscales on Frost’s measure were not consistently related to suicidality.  He posits that a potential explanation for the results for self-oriented perfectionism is that it has both adaptive and maladaptive dimensions, which may help to explain the findings from Klibert, Langhinrichesen-Rohling & Saito, where they found that those described as self-oriented had different outcomes when they also possessed the socially-prescribed trait (2005).  Overall, the systematic review serves to confirm that the empirical findings over the past couple of decades are inconclusive with regards to certain dimensions of perfectionism.

 

Where Does This Leave Us?

Our society is enthralled in the ideal, as we are constantly bombarded by photos of airbrushed celebrities, many Americans are swamped in debt to keep up with the latest and greatest gadgets and in the academic arena, constant demands are placed on students to aim high and be the best that they can be.  While these pressures can be motivating for some, perfectionists may take these expectations to the extreme.  Some believe that their acceptance and overall worth as a person is wholly dependent upon their achievements, as they become obsessively worried about failure (www.pt.com/pitfall).  So, the question remains to be answered: when the expectations are too high and the pressures are too http://resources.prufrock.com/Portals/0/BlogImages/Perfectionism.jpgmuch, how will the perfectionist student react if they fail to achieve their own irrational goals or the standards they believe others expect of them?  Research indicates that the relationship between perfectionism and suicidal ideation is not black and white, as not all dimensions of the trait have consistently been associated with an increased risk for suicidality.  Perfectionism is complex and still not well-understood.  Specifically, few studies found evidence for a Text Box: (www.photo/perfect)link between self-oriented or other-oriented perfectionism and suicidal behavior; however, investigators have consistently identified a relationship between socially-prescribed perfectionism and suicidal ideation.  The findings appear to support many of the claims made on the internet, which suggested that being a high achiever and having great expectations for yourself may not inherently lead to dysfunction; however, when the pressures and negative self-evaluations reach an extreme, particularly in the face of stress and failure, despair and distress are likely to follow.  This is particularly the case for an individual who perceives extremely high external demands.  As the debate rages on, it is essential that we continue to study and search for the key factors that contribute to perfectionist tendencies and how this personality trait may contribute to maladaptive functioning.  Also, most of these studies focused on correlational data, so it would be beneficial in the future for researchers to take a longitudinal approach to the situation so that causality may be inferred.  Perfectionism is almost certainly related to suicidal ideation at some level, so it is imperative to keep in mind and remind each other that we are all human beings who will inevitably falter and make mistakes.  Just remember the wise words of Paulo Coelho: “But there is suffering in life, and there are defeats.  No one can avoid them.  But it’s better to lose some of the battles in the struggles for your dreams than to be defeated without ever knowing what you’re fighting for” (www.quote.com/defeat).

 

If you are interested in your own perfectionist tendencies, Psychology Today offers a 44-item questionnaire with feedback about what type of perfectionist you are: www.pt.com/test

 

Works Cited

Baechler, J. (1980). A strategic theory. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 10, 70-99.

 

Dean, P.J. & Range, L.M. (1996). The escape theory of suicide and perfectionism in college students.  

Death Studies, 27, 415-424.

 

Donaldson, D., Spirito, A., & Farnet, E. (2000). The role of perfectionism and depressive cognitions in

understanding the hopelessness experienced by adolescent suicide attempters. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 31(2), 99-111.

 

Hamilton, T.K., & Schweitzer, R.D. (2000). The cost of being perfect: perfectionism and suicide

ideation in university students. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 34, 829-835.

 

Hewitt, P.L., Flett, G. L., & Weber, C. (1994). Dimensions of perfectionism and suicide ideation.

Cognitive Therapy and Research, 18(5), 439-458.

 

Hewitt, P.L., Newton, J., Flett, G.L., & Callander, L. (1997). Perfectionism and suicide ideation in

adolescent psychiatric patients. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25(2), 95-101.

 

Klibert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-

oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46(2), 141-156.

 

O’Connor, R. C. (2007). The relations between perfectionism and suicidality: a systematic review.

Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 37(6), 698-714.

 

 

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