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The Connection Between Addiction and Perfectionism: Understanding the Risks

Clinically referred to as substance use disorder (SUD), addiction, is a complex mental health disorder that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Addiction is a chronic disorder characterized by the persistent, compulsive, and uncontrolled use of substances like legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications despite harmful consequences. Both addiction and perfectionism are essentially ways people respond to emotional pain. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” Perfectionism is a byproduct of dysfunctional thinking that leads to the development of distorted worldviews, feelings of frustration, etc., all of which can trigger or exacerbate substance abuse problems. Research suggests that there are several mechanisms through which addiction and perfectionism can be linked, such as:

  • Self-worth: Beneath perfectionism usually lies a self-esteem issue, as perfectionists often tie their self-worth to their achievements. When perfectionists fall short of their expectations, they experience intense self-criticism and feelings of failure. This produces extreme stress and emotional distress, which may increase one’s vulnerability to addiction as a means of escape or self-medication.
  • Emotional regulation: Perfectionists often struggle with emotional dysregulation, which is a term used within the mental health field to denote irrational, poorly modulated emotional responses. To cope with the inability to effectively regulate their negative emotions (e.g., frustration, disappointment, self-doubt, etc.) perfectionists may turn to addictive substances or behaviors in attempt to achieve short-term relief. 
  • Personality traits: Perfectionism is often associated with certain personality traits (e.g., high levels of conscientiousness, neuroticism, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, etc.) that can increase the risk of addiction. 
  • Core beliefs: Perfectionists often hold rigid and distorted beliefs about themselves which lead to self-defeating inner dialogues and negative self-assessments. Addiction can serve as a maladaptive coping mechanism to escape these negative self-perceptions and temporarily alleviate the distress associated with them.
  • Anxiety: As asserted by Dr. Gordon L. Flett, Professor of Psychology at York University, “Perfectionism and anxiety are consistently associated with each other, and this applies to people of various ages, including children and adolescents. Perfectionists are not only anxious, but they often also suffer from chronic worry.” Since perfectionists are prone to elevated levels of anxiety, when faced with situations that make them feel self-conscious, they may engage in addictive tendencies to temporarily assuage anxiety.
  • Control: Perfectionists often have a strong desire for control and find uncertainty incredibly difficult. They strive to eliminate any potential sources of failure or criticism. Further, it is highly common for perfectionists to struggle with chronic avoidance tendencies. Addiction can become a way for perfectionists to regain a sense of control. 

For Information and Support Substance abuse and addiction can be incredibly dangerous and can result in severe short and long-term consequences. If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please get help as soon as possible. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to leading happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives. There is no reason to go through this alone, and we are here to help. Please feel free to reach out to us for further information or with any questions regarding substance abuse or addiction. We are available anytime via telephone at: 213-389-9964, or you can always email us at:

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