Does perfectionism have implications for alcohol use?

by Roger Whittler, LPC, Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program Clinician

In 2001, researchers Stanley et al. found two key dimensions of perfectionism: perfectionistic striving and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic striving referred to the pursuit of high personal standards. Perfectionistic concerns involve being intensely self-critical when not meeting high personal standards. As a licensed professional counselor for the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, I often hear lawyers express they have perfectionistic tendencies that started in undergraduate school, so this area is of interest to me.

In a July 2021 Journal of Counseling and Development Research article, Alcohol and Substance Use Symptom Differences Between Classes of Perfectionists, researchers Philip B. Gnilka et. al., measured levels of perfectionism in 428 undergraduate students, in addition to screening the students for alcohol use. Based on the 2001 research noted above, they separated the students into four distinct perfectionistic groups: adaptive, mixed, non-perfectionist, and maladaptive perfectionists. Adaptive perfectionists – those who pursue high personal standards – had the lowest level of perceived stress, while the maladaptive perfectionists – those who intensely were self-critical – had the highest level of perceived stress.

The maladaptive and non-perfectionist groups reported the highest levels of behaviors and attributes associated with alcohol and substance use problems. This information supplies much-needed insight about perfectionism and alcohol use. Being a perfectionist can be positive when contained to chasing something worthwhile and not the intense self-criticism that follows not catching the prize every time. When lawyers ask me for my advice about dealing with perfectionistic tendencies, my response is be generous to yourself, forgive shortcomings, and continue the pursuit of perfection. Some key points regarding perfectionism:

  • Perfectionism is good if it is adaptative and focused on achieving high standards.
  • Perfectionism that is a source of personal criticism for shortcomings is linked to increased substance use.
  • Staying focused on pursuing high personal standards, even during times of disappointment, is the goal.

The Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program supplies free counseling to members of The Missouri Bar and their families. Call toll free at 1-800-688-7859.