Perfectionism and Problem Drinking
How much do you agree with these statements?
- Failing at something is awful if other people know about it.
- It would be awful if I made a fool of myself in front of others.
- I am concerned about making errors in public.
If you strongly agree with all of these statements, you might be a perfectionist—somebody who tries very hard to avoid displaying their shortcomings, failures, and other imperfections in public.
This might conflict with your own personal definition of perfectionism. Most people think of perfectionists as being neat, organized, and having high standards. Researchers have studied this type of perfectionism too. As it turns out, there are multiple types of perfectionism, but being organized with high standards is not strongly linked to mental health problems.
In contrast, people who strongly agree with the three statements above tend to experience more negative emotions, such as anxiety and sadness. Paul Hewitt, Gord Flett and colleagues call this kind of perfectionism “perfectionistic self-presentation” because it focuses on the image of perfection people try to cultivate in public. Many perfectionistic people use alcohol to escape from the negative emotions, relentless self-recrimination, and high fear of failure that perfectionism entails. Alcohol can keep the perfectionistic thoughts at bay but at the cost of alcohol-related problems such as interpersonal problems, blacking out, or missing work.
To understand the links between perfectionism, negative emotions, and alcohol problems, I recruited 263 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 to fill out the same questionnaires once a day for 20 days. This might seem a bit excessive – why ask people the same questions day after day?
The answer is that people’s level of perfectionism can vary a little bit from day-to-day while still being relatively stable in the long run. Some may be generally unconcerned with making mistakes yet feel very concerned about mistakes on a job interview. However, if you look over many days (or months), you generally find that people’s level of perfectionism doesn’t actually change very much. This nuance is lost if you ask people about their personality just once.
The other reason for asking people the same questions for 20 days is that people don’t typically drink every day, and the memory of how much they drink tends to fade quickly. Thus, asking about alcohol use soon after it happens provides more accurate data.
The results of this study found that perfectionistic people had more negative emotions from day-to-day, which motivated them to cope with those negative emotions by drinking alcohol. When people drink to cope with negative emotions—as opposed to drinking for, say, social reasons—they tend to experience alcohol-related problems such as blacking out, fighting with others, or missing work. Perfectionists in the study drank to cope with their elevated levels of negative emotions, which in turn led to alcohol-related problems.
Understanding the links between perfectionism and alcohol problems may help practicing psychologist tailor treatments to the personality of their clients. Because perfectionistic drinkers drink to alleviate their negative emotions, therapy for such people might be most effective if it focuses on treating anxiety or depression. Studies by Patricia Conrod and her colleagues suggest that personality-focused treatments can be useful to treat alcohol problems, but little of this work has focused specifically on the role of perfectionism. Through continued study of this topic we can make headway into better treatments for people who drink because they are excessively perfectionistic.
For Further Reading:
Mackinnon, S. P., Ray, C. M., Firth, S. M., & O'Connor, R. M. (2019). Perfectionism, negative motives for drinking, and alcohol-related problems: A 21-day diary study. Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 177-188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2018.12.003
Conrod, P. J., Castellanos-Ryan, N., & Mackie, C. (2011). Long-term effects of a personality- 31 targeted intervention to reduce alcohol use in adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79, 296-306. doi:10.1037/a0022997
Sean P. Mackinnon is a Senior Instructor at Dalhousie University who studies personality, well-being, and alcohol use.