Life is not as we know it. The coronavirus pandemic has swept across continents and has prevented us from experiencing life as we normally would. Social distancing is in full force; however, increased isolation is taking its toll on our physical and mental health, and unsurprisingly many of us are feeling lonelier than ever.
Humans are social beings. From an evolutionary perspective, social relationships were essential for our early survival, and very much still are. Indeed, social connectedness is one of the most fundamental aspects of human life and is vital to our well-being. Feeling disconnected or uncared for by others will not only elicit painful emotional states but also thwarts a basic human need—a need for relatedness. However, just as thirst acts as a signal for us to drink water, painful emotional states can serve as a signal for us to seek greater connection to others.
Existing evidence indicates that social connectedness has a powerful influence on health and longevity. People who feel more connected to others, for instance, have lower rates of depression, anxiety, and are at lower risk of suicide. However, the effects of social disconnection are not limited to mental health. In fact, social disconnection also adversely impacts our physical health, including higher blood pressure, elevated stress hormones, and impaired immune function.
Research suggests that some personality traits make it difficult to engage in stable, interpersonal relationships—one trait being perfectionism. Researchers define perfectionism as a personality trait involving the setting of irrational standards, accompanied by harsh self-criticism. Though perfectionists are driven by extreme, thwarted relational needs to gain approval and acceptance, several reasons exist as to why they may generate greater social disconnection from others.
First, perfectionists undergo incessant striving, involving an imbalanced individualistic focus on attaining achievements. They prize competition over collaboration. However, their fixation on competition and achievement comes at a cost as these individuals neglect forming meaningful relationships with others.
Perfectionists are also more prone to subjective social disconnection because they exhibit dysfunctional and irrational beliefs towards their social relationships, alongside heightened interpersonal sensitivity. A hypersensitivity to interpersonal encounters and a perceived inability to please others leave perfectionists chronically predisposed to subjective social disconnection. This is important because subjective social disconnection is a much stronger predictor of adverse health outcomes than objective social disconnection.
Theory and research suggest people with high levels of perfectionism are at-risk of depressive symptoms and suicide ideation because they experience intense feelings of isolation, alienation, and loneliness. The psychological pain that results from social disconnection can be incredibly profound. Indeed, experiences of social rejection and exclusion are considered to be some of the most painful experiences we can endure and may be most acutely felt by perfectionists.
The deeply disturbing pain of rejection can cause perfectionists to be highly attuned to the need for social connection, resulting in the intensification of perfectionistic behaviors. However, perfectionists’ perceptions are often distorted so that they perceive others' as perpetually disappointed, overly critical, and rejecting. On the other hand, others may view them as ingenuine, cold, or distant. Sadly, their behavior is self-defeating, meaning they actually create greater social disconnection from others.
In the current pandemic, perfectionists can turn greater attention to forming and maintaining close relationships, which are essential for a meaningful existence and run deep in our evolutionary make-up. Perhaps now more than ever we can reach out to others and form a sense of solidarity and connection.
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