sad teen

Perfectionists: Their Own Worst Enemies

A new study has helped substantiate the long-held belief that perfectionist tendencies can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.


“I’ve been on the low, I been taking my time. I feel like I’m out of my mind. It feel like my life ain’t mine. I don’t wanna be alive. I don’t wanna be alive. I just wanna die today.”

Those are the lyrics to the 2017 hit single, 1-800-273-8255, by Logic featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid. The song, whose title is the number to the US suicide prevention hotline, describes someone calling the hotline and getting help finding the will to live. Calls to the hotline in real life increased by 50% after Logic performed the song at the MTV Video Music Awards.

But what drives people to want to take their own life?

A new study from Western University might offer some answers. The study, published last week in the Journal of Personality, found that perfectionists are at a greater risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Their own worst critics

Ten to 20 million people attempt suicide each year, and although there is rarely one single factor at play, there are certain personality traits that can play a large role. By isolating these traits, researchers and clinicians can better inform prevention and intervention strategies.

The need to be perfect has long been considered one of the personality traits related to increased risk of suicide, but many studies have been inconsistent and underpowered, so definitive conclusions were difficult to make.

That’s why Martin Smith, PhD candidate in Psychology at Western University, decided to perform a meta-analysis of 45 studies on the role of perfectionism in suicidal thoughts and attempts.

“Perfectionists are their own worst critics — good enough is never enough,” explains Smith in the paper. “Consequently, the typical perfectionist is locked in an endless loop of self-defeating over-striving in which each new task is another opportunity for harsh self-rebuke, disappointment, and failure.”

In the study, they differentiated between perceived external pressures to be perfect and internal desires to be perfect. The study revealed that both types of perfectionism had a small to moderate correlation with suicide ideation (suicidal thoughts, intent, and threats).

“We expected that people with high perceived external pressures to be perfect would be at elevated risk for suicidality,” says Smith. “However, we were unsure whether perceived internal pressure to be perfect would be related to suicidality. [This came as] somewhat of a surprise.”

Small but not unimportant

Small to moderate effects may seem inconsequential, but this is in line with other factors predictive of suicide, such as hopelessness. There is no one factor that has a large correlation with suicidality.

It is important to note, however, that this study cannot show a causative effect – that is, that perfectionism causes suicidal tendencies. It can only show that the two correlate closely.

Martin is currently planning a follow-up study investigating the role that parents play in their children’s perfectionism and suicidal thinking.

By this time next year, Canada should have their own suicide prevention hotline and there are many other resources if you’re feeling hopeless, including the Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Centre at 1-866-933-2023 and on webchat at; the Bell Let’s Talk Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 and on webchat at; and 911 and emergency departments of area hospitals.

If you’re a university student, check out this post for a more comprehensive list of university resources or go to your school’s website.

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.