Study finds daily hassles make perfectionists feel sick

Perfectionists who can’t stop thinking about being perfect are more likely than others to suffer psychosomatic symptoms when faced with the daily hassles of living, a new study at York University shows.

“In both men and women, we found that daily hassles and negative emotions contribute to the link between perfectionistic thoughts and psychosomatic symptoms,” says lead author Gordon Flett, a psychology professor in York University’s Faculty of Health and Canada Research Chair in Personality &  Health. “The perfectionist who makes a big mistake and can’t stop thinking about it will likely start to feel ill, especially if he or she has other stressors in daily life,and tends to be a chronically dissatisfied, unhappy person.”

Gordon FlettGordon Flett

The study of 228 university students, published in the April issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, is the first empirical evidence that frequent perfectionistic thoughts are associated with experiencing more frequent psychosomatic symptoms.

Rather than focus on the perfectionist trait itself, researchers in this study focused on perfectionistic thoughts. They asked students to report how often they had thoughts focused on the need to be perfect and felt negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger and depression. Students were also asked to complete a 49-item questionnaire developed at York to measure daily life hassles among university students, ranging from struggling to meet their own academic standards, to time pressures, romantic or friendship problems, and assorted annoyances. In addition, they reported how often they experienced 17 psychosomatic symptoms, from headaches to fatigue.

Although the study was designed for students, the results are in keeping with earlier research that found a heightened stress response among perfectionists in threatening situations. The findings from this study should be applicable to all age groups, says Flett.

“An important practical implication of this research is that it shows that people who chronically experience perfectionistic thoughts need positive interventions such as relaxation training and stress counseling, and, ultimately, they need to stop engaging in this type of thinking,” says Flett. “What we are really indicating is that there is a health cost associated with always thinking about needing to be perfect.  This is amplified by the stressful existence that so often accompanies perfectionism.”

This type of thinking may contribute to health problems, even among highly accomplished people known for their perfectionism, says Flett.

The study, “A mediational model of perfectionistic automatic thoughts and psychosomatic symptoms: The roles of negative affect and daily hassles”, was coauthored by York University’s Danielle Molnar, a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow, as well as York graduate student Taryn Nepon and University of British Columbia professor Paul Hewitt.