Perfectionism and sleep

This popped up the other day. A friend sent me a link, mostly to do with effective revising techniques, but a snippet of the article mentioned a link between socially prescribed perfectionism, and self reported insomnia. (The slightly irrelevant, but slightly interesting initial article )

A total of 1163 undergraduate students of both genders between 17 and 25 years of age completed the scale. Results from correlational and categorial analyses indicated that socially prescribed perfectionism was the only dimension associated with sleep disturbance in undergraduate students of both genders. Males with the highest levels of socially prescribed perfectionism were approximately twice more likely to report sleep disturbances than those with less socially prescribed perfectionism. Similar results were found within the female sample. (Perfectionism and sleep disturbance )

I assume; that because of my own sleep issues; this sparked an interest. So I began to delve a little deeper.

So I guess we need to begin with the basics. Perfectionism can be broken down into a set of personality traits such as unrealistically high and rigid standards for performance, fear of failure, and excessive self-criticism. Often this level of personal standards can lead to a self-destructive set of ideals. Many psychologists link severe perfectionism with clinical depression (obviously after genetic factors) (Perfectionism Is Self-Deception – Psychology today ). This article is an interesting look on how (unchecked) perfectionism can result in an increased level of unhappiness.

Now don’t get me wrong, perfectionism is a tool. And as such I think it can be used to both better yourself and the situation. It becomes a problem when that sense that you don’t quite measure up begins to filter into everything. I think there is two kinds of perfectionism – Positive and negative. Positive being achievement oriented, and negative being failure oriented. So it simply comes down to management and reasoning.

What drives positive perfectionists is the desire for growth and the inherent pleasure of being challenged.  Making things better gives them meaning and keeps them satisfied.  While they like being good at something, they do not overreact when they are underperforming.  Instead, they focus on how to improve.  They rarely think of giving up because achieving is a way of life for them. When they run into obstacles, they turn to problem solving.  They respond to failure by reviewing their work, analyzing the results, and planning what to do next.

For example, an employee who is a positive perfectionist works hard at a job in order to get a promotion, to get a commendation, or to get a raise. A college student who is a positive perfectionist spends more hours than necessary working on a paper in order to master the course material and advance his learning beyond what is required.  A clinical psychologist who is a positive perfectionist spends thousands of dollars on continuing education courses to ensure her clients are getting the best care she can offer.

The negative perfectionist version of the employee from the previous example works hard at a job to avoid being fired, given a bad review, or passed for a promotion.  The college student spends hours on a paper for fear of getting a B instead of an A and losing his 4.0 GPA.  The clinical psychologist who keeps taking more courses is worried about losing clients and not meeting the requirements to keep her license.  Can you already sense how differently these three people might feel as they try to keep up with their goals compared to their positive perfectionist counterparts? (Theo Tsaousides Ph.D. – How to be the perfect perfectionist )

As you could imagine, the positive perfectionists will be able to maintain a healthier psychological outlook on themselves and their world. Emotionally they will be better equipped to cope with distress. Negative perfectionists, on the other hand, will be more susceptible to self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression etc.

There is a massive difference between ‘it can be better’ and ‘its not good enough’ although both are phrases of a perfectionist. I believe the latter is where a lot of people would land.

I think I have gone off topic (well, slightly. I guess it still relates.)

Sleep. It’s no surprise that sleep quality, cognitive function and emotional processing are intertwined. Mental resilience and optimism are a pleasant side effect of a decent nights sleep. So, on the other hand,  a poor nights sleep (in that it is not restorative, I am not putting down a time for this idea of a ‘good nights sleep’ as everyone is in need of different amounts and sleeps in a variety of different depths) leads to irrational reactions, irritability, dysfunctional cognitive functioning, but also anxiety, and symptoms that can be linked with depression.

As regards the definition of the personality trait of perfectionisms, there is agreement that perfectionism consists of a set of dysfunctional cognitive–emotional processes. This definition is important because numerous studies indicate that dysfunctional cognitive–emotional processes cause sleep disturbances. (Perfectionism and sleep – study by Brand et al)

This was an extensive look at self prescribed perfectionists and sleep disturbance carried out on Swiss University students. Taking variables such as stress perception, coping with stress, emotion regulation, and mental toughness into account, this study aimed to calculate both the direct and indirect effect on sleep that perfectionism can cause.

They took a cross-section of 346 young adult students, (M=23.87 years; SD [standard deviation] =1.93; 54.6% females) and got them to complete questionnaires relating to perfectionist traits, physiological functioning (stress, coping, emotions, mental toughness).

This is what they found:

Perfectionism traits were significantly associated with greater perceived stress, more reliance on negative coping strategies, and less reliance on positive coping strategies. Perfectionisms traits were significantly associated with lower scores for Perception and acknowledgement of own emotion, and the Regulation and control of own emotions. No significant associations were found for Emotional expressivity (with one exception) or for the Perception of others’ emotions. Two perfectionism traits (concerns and doubts; personal standards) were associated with lower mental toughness.


They had two main hypotheses:

  • There would be significant association between perfectionism and poor sleep
  • When perceived stress, poor coping, low emotion regulation, and low mental toughness were entered in the equation, perfectionism traits were no longer associated with poor sleep, that is to say, they were mediated by coping and perceived stress.


One of the interesting points is that sleep deprivation can cause issues, but those same issues can trigger insomnia. So, the characteristics associated with perfectionism could be the cause of troubled sleep, or the poor sleep could exacerbate those characteristics that just so happen to be linked with socially reported perfectionism.

This study showed that when those other factors, mental toughness, emotion regulation, coping etc were taken into account, the role that perfectionism played in the equation of sleep quality became less important. When those other factors were scored lowly, the quality of sleep decreased and along with that lowered concentration and mood. When those factors were scored on the higher side, these mediated the effect self reported perfectionism had on sleep quality. So here we can see an overlap, perfectionist traits are rooted in underlying poor coping strategies, stress perception and poor emotional stability. Those then can be held more responsible for the lack of sleep, rather than that of a perfectionist character.

Of course a  big issue with this (and many) study(ies), is that most of these variables were self reported. However I don’t think it is a coincidence that all of these traits overlap. Saying that perfectionism is the cause of insomnia is a shallow statement. More importance should be held in those cognitive emotional processes that encompass the two. I believe more research is needed; taking a bigger cross-section, assessing each variable more objectively and possibly looking at genetic factors.

Lose sleep, worry about sleeping, struggle to sleep. It’s a cycle that many find themselves in. This was a very strange off topic ramble. Offering no answers, but possibly some form of justification? I am unsure. I am sure on the fact that this was an eye opening, if not slightly futile exploration.




5 thoughts on “Perfectionism and sleep

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  1. This was very interesting and informative, if a bit long. So in essence, the reasons or traits responsible perfectionism and insomnia are the same, but perfectionism in itself is not responsible for insomnia? Did I get that right? It’s a very intriguing theory!


    1. Yes! I know I tend to ramble, and occasionally go in circles with both my thoughts and when I write. I believe it works in a cycle. In that the characteristics of perfectionists can be made worse by the lack of sleep, but also those characteristics can lead to issues with sleep. So in effect, they could self perpetuate. Or something like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahh okay. A cycle. Makes sense! I’m no stranger to rambling, if you check out my blog (I’d love it if you would) you’ll definitely see proof of that! My ramblings are just shorter. And more random. Labyrinths, rainbows, the chaos theory, basically everything that catches my fancy!


      2. I think theres so many direct ans indirect effects; it’s tricky to pin it to a linear explanation.

        Cool! I’ve had a quick look and there’s a whole array of things on there! I will definitely check it out in more depth (when I have some time!)

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks so much! I’ll be waiting for your thoughts on anything you find interesting, which hopefully you will. No hurry! 🙂


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