Perfectionism and health

22/10/2020
Perfectionists by definition strive for the best, try to pass exams with flying colours, are meticulous in their jobs and raise perfect children. One could therefore assume that this urge for the ideal also applies to their health. ... from Live Sience by Rachael Rettner


However, new research shows that this characteristic can bring both benefits and risks.
The ambitious goals set can mean additional psychological pressure. Perfectionists are very self-critical, they are never satisfied with their performance.

In fact, studies show that the personality trait of perfectionism is associated with poor physical health and an increased risk of death. Researchers are just beginning to tear apart this complex trait and its relationship to health.
"Perfectionism is a virtue that must be praised," said Prem Fry, a professor of psychology at Trinity Western University in Canada. "But above a certain threshold it backfires and becomes an obstacle," she said.

While some may strive to be perfect in certain areas of their lives - such as an athlete who has to follow a gruelling training schedule - true perfectionism comes in a generalised form.

Researchers found that socially prescribed perfectionism was associated with poorer physical health, which in this case meant that people experienced more symptoms of health problems, had more visits to the doctor, took more working days and gave themselves low scores when asked about their health.
On the other hand, self-oriented perfectionism was associated with better physical health.
So what is behind this relationship?
One factor could be the degree to which people feel happy or sad, which in psychology is known as positive or negative affect. A 2006 paper showed that general negative feelings, including feelings of anxiety and excitement, could partly explain the relationship they saw between socially prescribed perfectionism and poorer health. And feelings of happiness explained the relationship between self-oriented perfectionism and better health.


So what is behind this relationship?

One factor could be the degree to which people feel happy or sad, which in psychology is known as positive or negative affect. A 2006 paper showed that general negative feelings, including feelings of anxiety and excitement, could partly explain the relationship they saw between socially prescribed perfectionism and poorer health. And feelings of happiness explained the relationship between self-oriented perfectionism and better health.

Those who feel that others expect them to be perfect may also experience a deterioration in their health if they distance themselves from others and receive support from friends and family.
"We know that social support is a huge indicator of physical health. If you tend to have strong bonds with people, a good family life and good friendships, you tend to be healthier," Molnar said. "And we know that socially prescribed perfectionists tend to have this sense of separateness from other people, so it would make sense that one of the ways they would experience poorer health is through this sense of social separateness from others.
Even when others seek help, socially prescribed perfectionists might view such actions as critical.

Other perfectionists may be reluctant to ask for help altogether because they do not want to let it be known that something is wrong or that they are in some way imperfect.
"If you have to ask someone for help, it means you are flawed, it means you are weak, right? And so I think that there is also the idea of not wanting to make it appear that you need help from others," said Fuschia Sirois of the University of Windsor in Canada.

Poor health could also be the result of perfectionists leaving little time for themselves while spending every minute striving for perfection, Sirois said.
More research is needed to unravel the complicated relationship between perfectionism and health.


"One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply does not exist. Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist." Stephen Hawking, Physicist.