A Dalhousie University psychologist warns that perfectionism is not a healthy approach to life's challenges.
He explains why individuals with a high degree of perfectionism are often setting themselves up for a host of physical, emotional and mental problems, particularly related to binge eating.
"Perfectionism is a double-edged personality trait," says Simon Sherry, Assistant Professor of Psychology.
Although less well recognized than anorexia or bulimia, binge eating is a serious disorder. It occurs when a person feels out of control, and rapidly consumes a large amount of food in a short period of time.
Binge eating increases a person's susceptibility to depression, obesity, diabetes, and other problems.
Working in collaboration with Peter Hall of the University of Waterloo, Dr. Sherry closely followed the daily activities of a large group of undergraduates.
The researchers believe that they are the first to identify why perfectionism results in binge eating.
They have also honed in on the type of perfectionist who is most at risk, someone who believes that others are evaluating their performance critically as opposed to someone who is self-critical.
This kind of perfectionist concludes that a parent, a friend or a boss is being harshly judgmental of their performance and pressuring them to be perfect.
"It seems that as perfectionists go about their day-to-day lives, they generate a lot of friction. Because of their inflexibility and unrealistic expectations they also create problems in their relationships," says Dr. Sherry.
According to the researchers, binge eating becomes an effort to escape from being overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness, failure and sadness.
"Think about it, when was the last time that you were rapidly eating a pizza and pondering a major life decision at exactly the same time?" asks Dr. Sherry.
He further says that though binge eating helps banish troubles and difficulties in the short term, it also generates powerful negative emotions of guilt and shame that are longer lasting.
"We want to improve the lives of perfectionists with patterns of disordered eating," he says.
The researcher points out that perfectionists are often not self aware and are reluctant to seek help, posing a conundrum: They don't want to admit they're imperfect.
"I'm hopeful that students will read about this and realize that there are effective interventions for binge eating, including some help for perfectionism-change is possible," he says.
The study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.