It can help you ace exams and do well on the job — but perfectionism can also kill you, according to new research. Here's a quick guide to its dark side:
What did the researchers find?
The study ranked 450 adults aged 65 and older according to their level of perfectionism, based on their responses to an initial questionnaire. Over the next six-and-a-half years, those with high perfectionism scores — and correspondingly high levels of anxiety and stress — had a 51 percent higher risk of dying compared to participants with low scores. "Perfectionism is a virtue to be extolled definitely," says the study's author, Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University in Canada. "But beyond a certain threshold, it backfires and becomes an impediment."
Were there any exceptions?
Yes. While researchers had theorized that perfectionism might exacerbate chronic disease, the opposite was true in the case of those participants with type 2 diabetes. These subjects' meticulous attention to their blood sugar levels and diet reduced their risk of death by 26 percent compared to less exacting participants. "They ended up taking better care of themselves through self-management than people who were sort of more easygoing and lax," says Fry, as quoted in LiveScience.
Does perfectionism affect most people the same way?
No. Perfectionism has both benefits and costs, say researchers. On the positive side, it drives people to set high standards for themselves. But some individuals become obsessed with making mistakes and feel intense pressure from others to be flawless. "That, in essence is the paradox of perfectionism," says Patricia DiBartolo, a psychology professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. It can leave some people "very dysfunctional in terms of their daily functioning, their physical health, their achievement." They become so perfectionist that "they flunk out of college and... can't actually achieve any goal."
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