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There’s something bad about trying to be too good

4.20.2007

By Beth Cohen

It is difficult to write an article about death. I find it even more difficult to write an article about death due to suicide. But given the rising suicide rates on our college campuses, it is a topic I believe is important to address.

The loss of a life through suicide is tragic and creates many questions for those who are left behind. Loved ones in mourning often ask "why?" in their attempts to understand and ultimately cope with their loss.

The "why" is even more pronounced when the deceased individual did not appear to be sad or depressed. Researchers for many years have attempted to understand what leads some people to willfully put an end to their lives. They believe the more we understand the dynamics of suicide, the more we can work toward early intervention and prevention. I agree.

People commonly think of suicide as resulting from depression or chronic physical pain. We do know that some factors such as gender, age and certain physical and psychological diagnoses, such as depression, increase the risk of suicide. However, a distinguished UCLA researcher, Edwin Schneidman, has also found that increased levels of perfectionism in a person lead to a higher risk of suicide.

Schneidman has introduced a new term called "psychache." He defines psychache as "intolerable psychological pain." Specifically, he has linked perfectionism to psychache; psychache has been linked to suicide.

Schneidman identifies three main types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism where individuals set high expectations and standards for themselves. When they fail to achieve these often unreasonable expectations, there is self-criticism, self-blame and self-rejection.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism where individuals attempt to live up to what they believe are the expectations of others, working hard to gain approval.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism where individuals direct their perfectionism outward at others and are authoritarian and critical when others do not perform to their unreasonable standards. Psychache often occurs when there is a difference between expectations versus actual capabilities and achievements.

Perfectionists tend to set idealistic and unreasonable expectations and therefore, at times, fall short of their goals. Self-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism are associated with a higher risk for suicide. Examples of these types of perfectionism include the student who finds it unbearable to receive a poor grade, or the employee who is devastated by not getting the expected promotion. Their disappointment in themselves or perception that they have disappointed others may feel intolerable, with death sometimes feeling like the only option.

Others are often shocked because this person "never seemed depressed." They are unaware that the person cannot tolerate the psychological pain from certain life events. Interestingly, the fear of disappointing a significant other has been associated with the most severe feelings of psychache. This often presents itself when the individual talks about being a disappointment to their family or loved ones.

If you are experiencing psychological pain, please reach out for assistance. Our campus provides licensed counselors through ASAP (for faculty and staff) and CAPS (for students). If you suspect a friend, family member, colleague or student is in crisis, feel free to contact us so that we can assist you in assisting them. It is possible to manage and reduce psychological pain in our lives. Guidance and support by professionals can provide options and save lives.

Beth Cohen is the interim director of the Academic and Staff Assistance Program. For questions or to schedule an appointment, call ASAP at (530) 752-2727 or e-mail Cohen at bacohen@ucdavis.edu.


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