Perfectionism May Lead to Significant Psychological Distress, Study Suggests

A new study suggests needing to appear perfect to others leads to mental health stigma and a higher risk of untreated psychological distress.

Jessica Janze
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A new study, published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences, explores the relationship between perfectionism and treatment-seeking behaviors. Results of the study suggest that perfectionistic self-presentation, a form of perfectionism characterized by the need to appear perfect, is associated with mental health stigma and may lead to a tendency to hide aspects of the self that are perceived to be negative. This behavior is linked to low treatment-seeking behaviors and barriers to recovery when individuals do seek treatment. Researchers highlight the role stigma plays in treatment-seeking behavior, which places though with perfectionistic behaviors at increased risk.

“Individuals who score highly on measures of perfectionism are more likely to experience psychological distress and are also more likely to feel stigmatized when seeking help for psychological issues,” the researchers, led by Amy Shannon from York University in Toronto, write. “This feeling of stigmatization then makes these individuals less likely to seek psychological assistance, ultimately, the result of this dynamic is significant psychological distress that is undisclosed and untreated that, in turn, leads to increased incidences of suicides in which others report an absence of warning signs.”

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The stigma surrounding mental health is a common roadblock to seeking and obtaining psychological treatment, even among those that do not identify as, or struggle with, perfectionism. Stigma is often understood as the degree to which a person expresses a desire to avoid associating with or being defined as someone with a mental health disorder. However, research suggests that those who resist stigma have far better outcomes when seeking treatment for psychological distress across all diagnostic groups.

There are many reasons why individuals may elect not to seek help for their psychological distress,” the researchers write. “However, the stigma surrounding mental illness and accessing mental health services appears to be a key factor that leads some individuals to neglect treatment.”

Perfectionism and perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a higher degree of stigma toward physical and mental illness. Authors of the current study suggest this perfectionism is related to an increased tendency toward negative emotions, resulting in social distancing tendencies. Social distancing may serve a desire to avoid appearing imperfect to others.

“Furthermore, perfectionism has also been associated with lower likelihood of seeking help for psychological distress. Thus, perfectionism is associated with increased psychological distress yet is also linked to a reluctance to seek professional help for said distress.”

The purpose of the current study was to determine if individuals that differ among types of perfectionism also differ concerning their attitudes toward mental help treatment-seeking behaviors and mental health stigma. Researchers distinguish between trait perfectionism (wanting or needing to be perfect) and perfectionist self-presentation (wanting or needing to appear perfect to others).

One hundred and forty English speaking university students were recruited in the current study, consisting of 77.9% female participants with an overall average age of 19.7. Six measures were administered to participants of the survey to examine perfectionism, beliefs toward mental health, and stigma.

Results of the Canadian study suggest a link between perfectionist self-personation, masking personal symptoms of distress, and a tendency to support negative stereotypes about mental illness.

“Our results raise the possibility that negative assumptions about mental illness and how people react to mental illness may be contributing to this tendency to try to seem perfect (or avoid seeming imperfect) when in public,” the authors write.

Further, perfectionistic self-presentation was found to be associated with negative attitudes toward help-seeking than trait perfectionism and was connected to a higher level of self-stigma about seeking help. These results suggest those who feel the need to be seen as perfect may especially struggle with seeking help due to stigma, leading to a higher at-risk population that may rarely show signs of needing help.

“Taken together these findings point to a subset of the population that is at greater risk for psychological distress but also feels more stigma regarding seeking mental health treatment that, in turn, may explain why these individuals are also less likely to seek treatment. This hypothesis is plausible as stigma has been found to be a strong impediment to seeking treatment for mental health difficulties.”

In closing, the researchers call for further research in this area. The current study is limited in its reliance on a sample of undergraduate students which limits the generalizability of the findings. The authors caution that there is some evidence that the pattern of relationships may not hold for male participants and that future research should investigate whether these findings hold for more diverse populations.

 

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Shannon, A., Goldberg, J. O., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2018). The relationship between perfectionism and mental illness stigma. Personality and Individual Differences126, 66-70. (Link)

10 COMMENTS

  1. I am not insulting the writer of this piece. She has done a fine job of summing up the content of the article. Not fair to kill the messenger.

    Psychiatry cured me of perfectionism by totally ruining my life. Damaged by years on drugs and publicly humiliated by my badge of shame, I live in poverty, isolation, and chronic pain.

    Why would anyone want to ruin their career, health, alienate humanity, and die before 55? I wouldn’t recommend “mental health treatments” to my worst enemy.

    Nuff said.

  2. [Moderated]. Fifty years ago, no one would have dared to suggest that perferctionnism could be the cause of psychological distress, but rather that perferctionnism is a defense mechanism against psychological distress. It is amazing to see how low the intellectual level of the experts is.

    Not looking for “psychological treatment” is normal: [moderated]. There is no reason to find this behavior particularly glorious and estimable. [Moderated].

    There are no “treatment-resistant” people, only ineffective treatments.

    In the philosophical sense, stigma is not an attribute of mental illness; on the contrary, mental illness is an attribute of stigma. It is because people are first stigmatized that they are later labeled mentally ill. Diagnosis is simply a form of stigma.

    Therefore, a sentence such as: “research suggests that those who resist stigma have far better outcomes when seeking treatment for psychological distress across all diagnostic groups.” [moderated]. It is people who are already diagnosed who need to fight against stigma. And when they are less stigmatized, as if by chance, we find them less sick! This amazing correlation does not make sense in your mind?

    But for those who are not stigmatized, what would it be like to go to an expert to get diagnosed, and then to fight against stigma? It’s completely stupid!

    Perfectionism is already a defense mechanism. As a good capitalist, Dr. Shannon first seeks to annihilate this defense, in order to sell her psychological junk.

    “If it’s raining, it’s probably because people are wearing umbrellas. Let’s take umbrellas off and give them parasols! I observed a correlation between sun and parasols. I’m rightly selling parasols! Another inexplicable correlation.”

    • I agree, great comment, Sylvain. I would like to point out to the so called “mental health professionals” that targeting the perfectionists is part of why your industry is an “industry in crisis” today, and part of why your DSM was declared “invalid” in 2013. Because when you target the perfectionists they will do meticulous research, and find the medical proof of the scientific fraud of your entire DSM deluded industry.

      Murder all the perfectionists is the “mental health professionals’” new mantra? I agree, “It is amazing how low the intellectual level of the experts is.”

  3. Perfectionism is not a human trait. It is a cultural construct. In fact, the notion of perfectionism has changed over the past 50 years.

    My dad was a self-professed perfectionist. This is not mean “driven” nor any expectation to be “perfect.” He was born in 1924. He was a hard-working student, likely gifted in math and science, and when he worked he paid close attention to detail. Because of this, he was valued at his workplace and give promotions and even given tuition to get a second master’s degree. He died in 1997.

    By 21st Century standards, my dad was not a perfectionist by any means. If we got bad grades, he accepted it and gently encouraged us. If he himself made a mistake, which, being human, of course he did, just the same as any other human, he didn’t berate himself nor get overly frustrated.

    Given the messy state of my childhood bedroom, piled high with clothes by the door to ensure my own privacy, my parents were very tolerant indeed and rarely said anything. Never mind my tangled hair, which, to this day, won’t stay tidy for more than five minutes.

    My dad said perfectionism was a good thing. It helped him get his work done. I look back and remember him as emotionally stable (whatever that means) and never had a reason to see a shrink.

    Who decides who is a perfectionist and who is not? Psychiatry. Interestingly, for much of my life, I’d hear the following from MH professionals: “You have an eating disorder, therefore, you must be a perfectionist.” I even heard that perfectionism causes ED, or that it’s 100% a universal predictor of ED. And yet, I know many who were told they were perfectionists and this, sadly, caused perfectionism due to the looping effect.

    Getting straight A’s, for me, was not due to perfectionism. It was because I loved school and took to it. I love learning, love the classroom, and, though I am embarrassed to admit it, I’m smart, too.

    Speaking of intelligence, I read recently that intelligent or gifted children (I hesitate to use that term, actually) are often pressured during childhood to hide intelligence or even feel ashamed or embarrassed. I found this rung true for me. I sure felt that way when I was a kid, and during adulthood (outside of academia) the shame only continued. My intelligence wasn’t wanted in society and was never valued until recently. Psychiatry dumbs people down, not only by drugs, but primarily because they silence our brilliance and call it a disease.

  4. This article is a tool to increase stigma and further divide people into categories with all sorts of false assumptions.

    “…perfectionistic self-presentation, a form of perfectionism characterized by the need to appear perfect, is associated with mental health stigma and may lead to a tendency to hide aspects of the self that are perceived to be negative.”

    While I agree that needing to appear “perfect” to others can lead to all sorts of internal conflict and self-induced stress, to associate this with “treatment” issues and “mental health stigma,” per se (whatever that is, as opposed to carrying stigma due to either having a diagnosis, being on psych drugs, or where one falls on the of the socio-economic ladder hologram) is actually adding fuel to the already out-of-control fire. The issues of needing to appear perfect is exactly the twisted mainstream norm which sends most people seeking some kind of help and support. It is a cultural mindset that I believe became really embedded in our society post WWII–the perfect neighborhood, the perfect family, the perfect job, the perfect salary, the perfect car, the perfect attitude and disposition, etc.

    It’s enough to drive anyone bonkers from needing to maintain a standard far above and beyond what is human, mistakes and mars on that perfection being the reasons for which people begin to feel shame for not measuring up to these impossible standards. People have killed themselves over stuff like this.

    But not only are these standards impossible, are they really desirable? I imagine life would get awfully boring if we were perfect and faced no challenges. How would we learn and grow? And from what would we create, if we faced no contrast in life?

    “Further, perfectionistic self-presentation was found to be associated with negative attitudes toward help-seeking than trait perfectionism and was connected to a higher level of self-stigma about seeking help. These results suggest those who feel the need to be seen as perfect may especially struggle with seeking help due to stigma, leading to a higher at-risk population that may rarely show signs of needing help.”

    Clinicians are the ones that strive to be perfect in the first place! They are the ones, via the DSM, who set an impossible and totally fabricated standard of existence! They are the ones who have this need to appear perfect–which in this case, means to exhibit no “DSM symptoms,” as in–“Hey, look, I go by society’s rules! You should, too! And if you don’t, we will project our entire shadow onto you, and believe me, that will hurt. Then, I don’t have to feel the shame that I am projecting onto you.”

    To put this on the client is just one more blatant example of projecting negatively onto the clients of the system. This is social abuse, and it’s generational. Researchers and clinicians continue to make the client the fall guy, that is perfectly clear to me.

    “In closing, the researchers call for further research in this area.”

    Of course they do. They want more grant money. It’s how they make a living, at the expense of those they exploit.