Constantly striving to live a faultless life increases your risk of a very imperfect outcome—early death. Experts specializing in perfectionism recently convened at an Association for Psychological Science Convention in Boston to present research looking at perfectionism and its effects on health, ranging from loss of self-esteem and resilience to increased stress and risk of death. It can even interfere with effectively dealing in a crisis situation.
“Even though these impossibly high standards are self-imposed, the true perfectionists find it hard to relinquish the high self-expectations of performance, or to settle for more realistic standards, even during times of severe emergencies requiring them to act fast,” explains Prem Fry, PhD, professor of psychology at Trinity Western University in British Columbia.
The Details: At the convention, researchers specializing in perfectionist behavior shared their research, including Fry, whose recent study of older adults found a 51 percent reduced life-expectancy rate in perfectionists when compared to non-perfectionists. Other health ailments have also been linked to perfectionism. Other researchers have linked perfectionism to binge eating, hoarding, anxiety, substance abuse, and an increased risk of oxidative and nitrosative stress, which cause cell damage and inflammation, leading to a whole host of serious health problems. The good news is that not all perfectionists’ traits mean bad news. Some of Fry’s other work, published earlier this year, has found that perfectionists living with type 2 diabetes tend to more effectively control and monitor their condition. “Compared to non-perfectionists, they followed the treatment regimen more thoroughly and, as a result, lived healthier and longer lives.”
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What It Means: Fry notes that once the drive for perfectionism is acquired, it’s not easily kicked. It’s also important to note that if perfectionism is limited to one or two areas of your daily tasks, it could provide positive effects on self-esteem and self worth, Fry notes. “However, it is deadly to aspire to be perfect in all areas of one’s functioning,” she says. The key is to delegate responsibility to others for less-important tasks that are time consuming.
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Know the types and the signs.
True perfectionists are generally always unsatisfied with performance. Fry says the following are commonly observed signs of perfectionism in children, men, and women:
1. Shows excessive concern over small, everyday tasks
2. Worries about others’ approval
3. Frequently asks for extensions on deadlines
4. Worries excessively about being a disappointment to others
5. Over time, the trait can be identified by excessive levels of worry, depression, and sense of failure (even if the person is talented and competent).
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Other types of perfectionism include “socially prescribed perfectionists,” people who Fry says carry around the notion that others are expecting them to be perfect and excel. Parents can instill this in children and young adults, and bosses’ expectations can bring on this form of perfectionism in adults.
“Other-oriented perfectionists” have high expectations not just for themselves; they generally expect the same of other people, too. “Individuals who subscribe to all three features of perfectionistic thinking are in a permanent state of stress. In such cases, perfectionism may lead to a lot of stress-induced physical health problems and sometimes to other mental health problems such as depression, loss of appetite, migraines, social anxiety, alcoholism, and the increased overall risk of psychopathology, including suicidal motivation,” Fry explains.
To curb your perfectionist tendencies:
While Fry notes that the up side of perfectionism involves positive qualities like being more conscientious, diligent, accountable, and responsible, she also warns that perfectionists need to set limits. “Rigid perfectionistic expectations of others are likely to backfire against the perfectionist’s own productivity and may very likely inhibit productivity of others under their control and supervision,” she says, advising that people with this problem learn to set limits, and choose just one or two areas where they will be perfectionists. For instance, while it’s good for bridge engineers and surgeons to engage in perfectionism on the job to keep people safe, those same people don’t need to seek perfection when folding the laundry or playing in a softball charity tournament.
While perfectionism is a trait that’s hard to shake, researchers have found hope in a type of counseling known as cognitive behavioral therapy, in which a therapist will focus on how your thoughts, not external forces, affect your condition. Depression or anxiety medicine may be prescribed in more severe cases, but you may want to try natural remedies, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, before turning to pills.