Striving for perfection linked to suicide

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“Be the best you can be.” “Do your best.”

These phrases are most commonly heard as words of encouragement coming from parents, teachers, coaches and friends. But what happens when people think their “best” isn’t good enough?

Martin Smith, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Western University spent a year and a half researching perfectionism to answer one main question: “Is demanding perfection of the self associated with suicide?”

Smith says it is.

Part of the reason he and his team decided to look into this was because perfectionists often fly under the radar, Smith said, and perfectionism wasn’t adequately addressed in research for 50 years.

“In trying to seem perfect, they don’t or won’t get the social support they need, which can lead to suicides that happen without warning.”

Smith and his team sifted through half-a-century’s worth of research and come up with 45 studies and 12,000 participants to analyze. He said their findings showed perfectionism was particularly relevant to people in competitive atmospheres, such as university or sports.

“Perfectionists tend to have a black and white, all or none, thinking . . . but things in life are rarely so clear cut.”

Taylor Brown is a fourth-year Western University student who works at the school’s Wellness Education Centre.

Brown has dealt with mental illness and began working at the centre to help others going through a tough time.

“When people aren’t able to handle the pressure or don’t know coping strategies, it builds up and becomes too much,” Brown said.

Smith hopes his research will help people begin to notice and address this in individuals.

“It’s difficult to say the number of people (who are affected) because by definition they try to present themselves as perfect,” Smith said. “But it’s safe to say a lot of people struggle with this.” 

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