The Strange Link Between Perfectionists and Problem Drinking

Perfectionism doesn’t seem like a character trait that would correlate with problem drinking. After all, it’s hard to picture a person fixated on presenting their best self wanting to get blackout drunk. But a new study suggests that certain aspects of perfectionism can influence bad drinking behaviors.

The study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, involved 263 young adults who filled out daily questionnaires for 21 days. The questions concerned perfectionism, emotional states, reasons for drinking, and any alcohol-induced problems including fighting, risky behavior, neglecting responsibilities, and damage to personal relationships.

Researchers wanted to key in on the relationships among perfectionism, emotional states, and drinking. “Broadly speaking, perfectionism is a risk factor for a lot of psychopathology, specifically anxiety, depression, and eating disorders,” Sean P. Mackinnon, the study author and an instructor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University, told PsyPost.

And previous research had shown links between perfectionism and drinking, Mackinnon explains, but the exact connection wasn’t clear. Perfectionists, for example, tended not to drink a lot, but when they did, they experienced more problems—like blacking out, missing work, and getting into drunken conflicts. Mackinnon’s study aimed to understand why.

The results showed one aspect of perfectionism correlated with alcohol problems. You might think of perfectionism as wanting to always be seen in the best light. But there’s a corollary motivation: wanting to never be seen as imperfect. It’s the difference between “I want to be seen as perfect” and “I’m afraid of being found out as imperfect.”

To suss out this motivation, researchers asked how much participants agreed with questions such as, “I was concerned about making errors in public” and “I thought it would be awful if I made a fool of myself in front of others.” Those drives, the results suggest, were indirectly linked with problematic drinking because they’re associated with negative mood, drinking to cope, and drinking to fit in—all of which are associated with alcohol problems. (At the same time, perfectionist statements such as, “I expect to be perfect” showed no such relationship.)

Mackinnon paints the picture: A person fixated on concealing their faults (real or imagined) feels negative emotions, which puts them at risk of drinking to cope, or drinking to fit in. Those motivations then lead to a higher rate of alcohol problems.

That doesn’t explain why perfectionists tend to drink less, but still have more alcohol-related problems, though. There are other caveats, too: The study was relatively short, using participants from two locations in Canada, and the results suggest a relationship between perfectionism and problem drinking, but don’t definitively establish causality.

Mackinnon is already thinking about how to refine the research. Antidepressants, for example, could be a factor: Perfectionists may tend to take them, and they can lower alcohol tolerance.

In the meantime, though, the study offers a sympathetic portrait of perfectionists. They’re just regular people, after all, feeling bad and hoping a few drinks will help, while still fretting that they’re going to be found out.

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