Suicide, Perfectionism, and Criticism
Sometimes I’m asked why I write so much about dealing with criticism. The answer mostly has to do with the types of concerns that have been expressed to me over the years. Some involve the desire to be liked and respected. Others have to do with seeking to gain control over anger. And still others come from parents who find that how they go about disciplining their children has been a serious source of stress in their lives. Providing and responding to criticism in a pleasant, thoughtful manner involves skills that can be learned fairly quickly, and are clearly helpful when addressing these types of concerns.
Additionally, conflicts that bring forth negative criticism, if handled in an immature manner, can escalate and result in a destructive relationship between parent and child, the parting of a relationship between two valued friends, the loss of a job, serious injury, and prison time. And then there is the relationship between certain ways that people handle criticism and suicide.
In an earlier post, titled “TEENAGE SUICIDE AND BULLYING: THE LATEST CASE,” I wrote about 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick who had leaped to her death after more than a year of being incessantly criticized by a coterie of 15 middle-school children. Today, once again I take up the subject of the relationship between criticism and suicide because of an article I just read in this September’s Review of General Psychology by Gordon L. Flett, Paul L. Hewitt, and Marnin J Heisel titled, “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism Revisited: Implications for the Assessment of Suicide Risk and the Prevention of Suicide.” It’s written for research-minded people and has far more nuanced information than I can share in a single blog post designed for the general reader. Nevertheless, I’m going to summarize a few of its key points for I think they are very much worth considering as we move forward in our quest to become masters at dealing with name calling, insults and teasing.
Suicide and Criticism
The media is filled with stories about the Ebola virus, which has so far killed close to 4,000 people worldwide, and one person in North America. In contrast, it is estimated that over one million people worldwide, including 40,000 people in North America, kill themselves on an annual basis. Recent U.S. data indicate that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people who are under 40 years of age. For every person who commits suicide, several more attempt it, resulting in anguish for family and friends, and financial costs from emergency room and aftercare services that are estimated to be several billion dollars.
Of course, there are a number of reasons why people kill themselves, but the article I just read makes the following argument:
Chronic exposure to situations and contexts that place excessive pressure (or percieved pressure) on the individual to be perfect can have a destructive effect on most individuals and this is heightened among those people who are vulnerable and hypersensitive to criticism and social comparison feedback. Consider, for instance, the vulnerable perfectionist exposed regularly to a hypercritical parent, (boss/supervisor) or romantic partner who is ever-present and seemingly impossible to please. Alternatively, the vulnerable perfectionist may have a work environment where mistakes are simply not allowed and excessive standards are required by a tyrannical boss.
Now, I hasten to point out that most parents, bosses and supervisors who encourage quality performance don’t cause anyone to commit suicide. Moreover, the vast majority of people who may view themselves as perfectionists, even those who see themselves as particularly sensitive to criticism, don’t end up killing themselves. Nevertheless, the consistent evidence from studies that link suicide behavior with chronic exposure to external pressure to be perfect and the relationship between perfectionistic characteristics and an increased risk of lethal suicide behavior leads one to pause. Perhaps there may be some ways to encourage quality performance without increasing suicide risks.
Ideas about Prevention
Many people who view themselves as perfectionists tend to remain silent about any despair that they may experience. And those who demand that their children or workers be perfect don’t see anything wrong with this. So these people are unlikely to show up and ask to learn some skills to improve their behavior. Prevention programs, therefore, must be designed proactively and implemented broadly to reach these people. Schools, colleges and business organizations, if they are to impact people at risk, must provide education about these issues to their entire population. Thus, Flett and his colleagues recommend the following key themes be incorporated into school-based programs:
(a) fostering self-acceptance and compassion instead of experiencing shame and self-criticism; (b) promoting appropriate goal-setting and goal appraisal versus setting and maintaining impossible standards; (c) combating ambivalence about giving up the need to be perfect since the distressed perfectionist must be highly motivated to change; and (d) developing resilience to feelings of shame and ability to cope with interpersonal conflict and feelings of being rejected by others.
For the work environment, Flett and his colleagues state:
Prevention efforts should include an organizational focus on reducing pressures to be perfect. When perfectionism prevails as part of the culture and values of the workplace, it tends to promote poorer performance rather than superior performance (Gillett & Stenfert-Kroese, 2003) and it is linked with job dissatisfaction, poorer communication quality, role conflict, reduced likelihood of staying, and a poorer perceived fit between the person and the work environment (Balthazard, Cooke, & Potter, 2006; Rousseau, 1990).
Although, as a general statement, these ideas are worthwhile to think about, a far more detailed curriculum is necessary to foster the goals of these researchers. One such curriculum is available for free and can be found at this blog site (see below).
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.