Perfectionism May Lead to Alcoholism, Study Finds

People who expect themselves to reach unrealistic heights may be prone to reaching for the bottle.
perfectionism perfectionist personality traits psychology risk factors
You don’t say. Photo for illustrative purposes only. Photo: thom masat, Unsplash

Many things can lead people to reach for a bottle of alcohol. A new study found that having high expectations of one’s self could be one of them. 

The study, conducted by researchers in Belgium and published earlier this month in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, suggests that perfectionism may increase a person’s vulnerability to excessive alcohol use. The study found that severe alcohol use disorder (SAUD) was related to unrealistic standards for one’s self, and increased sensitivity to what one perceives are other people’s expectations. 


Of course, there isn’t an exact formula to predict a person’s drinking habits, and perfectionism isn’t the only thing that can put people at risk of alcoholism. Other risk factors include drinking at an early age, a family history of alcohol misuse, high stress levels, and peer pressure. Still, the study may shed light on some of the ways alcoholism is developed.

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as a tendency to demand of one’s self or others an extremely high level of performance. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.

Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to control or stop using alcohol despite repercussions to their health, or social and professional lives. Also referred to as alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, people with AUD can struggle with mild, moderate, or severe symptoms. 


To measure the relationship between perfectionism and AUD, the researchers looked at two groups of 65 adults who were similar in age and sex. One group consisted of people with SAUD and the other consisted of people without the condition. Both groups completed the Hewitt Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (a questionnaire that measures perfectionism traits) to evaluate three forms of perfectionism. 

“Self-oriented perfectionism” is characterized by unrealistically high and self-imposed expectations about one’s self. It is also related to self-criticism and depression. “Socially prescribed perfectionism” entails a perception of high expectations from other people and a desire to live up to those standards. People with this form of perfectionism may live with feelings of anxiety and insecurity around other people. “Other-oriented perfectionism” involves setting exaggeratedly high standards for others. This comes with a propensity for criticizing others based on how well they meet those standards. 

The researchers reportedly found that 79 percent of participants with SAUD exhibited greater self-oriented perfectionism than those in the control group, and 88 percent of participants with SAUD exhibited greater socially prescribed perfectionism than those in the control group. Participants with SAUD also reported higher depressive symptoms and anxiety. There were no significant disparities between the groups’ other-oriented perfectionism.


“This is consistent with what is known about self-related and interpersonal factors in severe AUD, such as reduced self-esteem, a tendency to self-blame, and a divergence between people’s ideal and actual selves,” said the Research Society on Alcoholism

This is not the first study that has found a link between perfectionism and problematic drinking. Previous studies have come to similar conclusions. But this study does offer insights into how alcoholism can be treated. The researchers said that perfectionism may be a valuable treatment target for people who struggle with the disorder. 

If you’re struggling with addiction, you can visit the official website of SAMHSA’s National Helpline for treatment information.

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