Women with perfectionist traits and fibromyalgia in poorer health than peers, study finds

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Women suffering from fibromyalgia who exhibit perfectionist traits tend to have poorer health than their non-perfectionist peers, according to new research out of York University.

The study, published by the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, is based on a sampling of 489 women diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that predominantly affects women and is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. It is the first large-scale investigation of fibromyalgia and perfectionism, and illustrates the toll perfectionism can take on those Gordon Flett head shotliving with chronic illness.

Gordon Flett

Participants answered questionnaires measuring personality and perfectionist traits, along with overall health. Researchers found that those who reported either self-oriented or socially prescribed perfectionist tendencies (those who put impossibly high standards on themselves or feel pressure to be perfect from those around them) admitted to poorer health than non-perfectionists. They reported more stress, more difficulty performing daily tasks and higher levels of pain.

“Chronic illness is difficult enough, but even more so for perfectionists,” says Gordon Flett, a psychology professor in York University’s Faculty of Health and Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health. “For women coping with fibromyalgia, there is often feel immense pressure to live up to others’ seemingly impossible standards and they feel frustration, shame, and high levels of stress when they cannot meet these expectations.”

The study also found no evidence supporting the belief that perfectionism is more prevalent among women with fibromyalgia compared to the general population. However, for the subsection of fibromyalgia sufferers who ranked high in either self-oriented or socially prescribed perfectionism, intervention and behaviour modification are key to ensuring they maintain their health.

“It is clear that women with fibromyalgia who are elevated in perfectionism have greater coping difficulties,” says Flett. “They should benefit greatly from interventions designed to enhance their coping skills and ability to engage in appropriate self-regulation. Otherwise they will be frustrated by their inability to strive tenaciously, and if they still go ahead anyway, will likely exacerbate their pain experience.”

The study, “Perfectionism and Health Functioning in Women with Fibromyalgia”, was led by York University’s Danielle Molnar, a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral Fellow, working in collaboration with Professor Gordon Flett and Brock University’s Professor Stan W. Sadava and research associate Jennifer Colautti.