UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 2 | Jan.
Lab probes perfectionism for links with depression
UBC lab involved in more than 25 research projects including
perfectionism's possible link to suicide
by Michelle Cook staff writer
Perfectionists. Leonardo da Vinci was thought to be one.
Michael Jordan is often mislabeled one. Martha Stewart is most definitely
one. Simon Sherry is not. And that, he says, is a good thing.
Sherry is one of 15 graduate and undergraduate Psychology students
at UBC conducting breakthrough research on perfectionism's troubling
links to depression and suicide, particularly in people their own
age and younger.
"In an achievement-oriented domain like a university, a lot of
people identify with perfectionism. But the condition isn't limited
to campuses," explains Sherry, who plans to finish his master's
degree in Psychology this year. "Many people in the community suffer
from it. If you took an average sample, it would be easy to see
that perfectionism is a malignant force in our society."
It was the chance to work in Psychology Assoc. Prof. Paul Hewitt's
Perfectionism and Psychopathology Lab that brought Sherry to UBC.
Under the direction of Hewitt, Sherry and other lab team members
are involved in more than 25 research projects, including a one-year
study on perfectionism, depression, suicide and stress in 1,000
The project will also assess the same characteristics in children
diagnosed with depression and considered high suicide risks.
Hewitt's group is the first to conduct research to examine whether
perfectionism may be the cause of suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
The lab is also following a group of 200 UBC students for six
months to explore how perfectionists sever their social support
systems leading to isolation, suicidal thoughts and behaviours,
and looking at whether perfectionist tendencies in children with
cancer interfere with their abilities to cope with the disease.
In today's high-performance society says Sherry, perfectionism
is often confused with positive achievement characteristics such
as conscientiousness. The lab's research shows perfectionism is
a negative factor in people's lives that creates vulnerability to
an assortment of psychological difficulties including eating, personality
and anxiety disorders.
Hewitt's lab is also the only one of its kind to divide perfectionists
into three types: self-oriented perfectionists who set impossibly
high standards for themselves; other-oriented perfectionists who
set rigid and unrealistic standards for those around them; and socially
prescribed perfectionists who feel that others are demanding perfection
Another innovative concept being explored is the difference between
people who need to be perfect and people who need to appear to be
For Sherry the saddest discovery has been how perfectionism robs
people of happiness, but this is also what makes the lab's work
rewarding for him.
"I feel tremendous potential for this program of research to overturn
the idea that perfectionism is a desirable trait," Sherry says.