Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Mary, originally reported his suicide as an accidental death. It wasn’t until several months later that she was able to confess Hemingway had taken his own life. More than a half-century later, we can only speculate as to why she could not render the truth immediately.
Perhaps she was trying to protect him from the shame of suicide, or perhaps it was the shock of it all. Maybe she wondered, along with the world, why would Ernest Hemingway kill himself? He was a man whose life experiences rival that of the epic Odysseus—a lover, writer, bull-fighter, deep-sea fisherman, war hero, and hunter. Hemingway was a man of action and passion. John Walsh, a contributor to the Independent, called Hemingway “the perfect synthesis of brain and brawn.”
It cannot go unsaid, however, that while Hemingway may have lived an enviable life, he suffered horribly as well, with deep depressive mood swings and drunkenness. But despite his tortured past, at 61 years of age, he appeared to have overcome his many demons. He was at the pinnacle of celebrity when he killed himself. He could have been no more successful or famous. He was a living legend. So why was that not enough for him?
Suicide Doesn’t Make Sense
This is the question that haunts us even today, as the world tries to understand the recent suicide of world-renowned restaurant chef Benoît Violier, 44, who was in the prime of life, enjoying the benefits of both a loving family and tremendous personal success. His unforeseen suicide left those who knew and loved him in utter shock. There was no note to explain his decision, or to assuage the heart-wrenching pain of loss. Only grief and questions remain.
Understanding the reasons behind suicide is particularly troubling for the human psyche, primarily because it’s an anathema to both reason and instinct. Our wiring is specifically designed for maximum self-preservation, and this desire to protect oneself drives our collective reasoning that life must therefore be worth saving, at all costs.
You have only to look at the Western medical model to see that, where medical professionals daily perform herculean efforts to keep people alive. They work exhaustively in emergency rooms and operating rooms to save every human heart from the grip of death. So it’s completely understandable that we, the survivors, should want some logical explanation as to why someone would take his own life.
This brings us to the fundamental disconnect at work here: suicide is not logical. Don’t misunderstand me: there may be many logical reasons for why someone might want to take his or her own life: terminal illness, depression, substance abuse, etc., but the act itself is not rational. If it were, we would likely not be having this discussion. So the challenge has always been: how do we identify those who are at risk for killing themselves, and how do we prevent it? These are the $64,000 questions.
The Maladaptive Perfectionism Explanation
One of the challenges with identifying and preventing suicide is that our current medical model treats it solely as a mental health issue, and seeks to explore and explain suicide in in terms of mental illness. To be sure, there is a great deal to be gained from this approach, but unfortunately it stops just short of capturing the whole picture. It doesn’t, for example, explain suicide among highly successful people with no prior history of clinically diagnosed symptoms, mental health treatment, or attempts at suicide, as was the case with Violier.
To better understand the whys and hows of these types of suicides, or suicides without warning, researchers have come up with an interesting theory that may, in part, help unravel the mystery. In a recent research article by Parvin Kiamanesh et al., researchers deconstructed the suicides of several highly successful men by conducting in-depth interviews with friends and family members of the deceased. What they discovered not only reaffirmed previous findings—chiefly, that there is a direct link between maladaptive perfectionism and suicide—but they also identified four characteristics common among each of the men.
Before we look at the four characteristics, it’s important to define terms. Perfectionism in and of itself is not a bad thing; many among us identify as perfectionists in some form or fashion. There is nothing overtly unhealthy about normal perfectionism; quite the contrary, as Kiamanesh and colleagues put it: “Normal perfectionism enables individuals to strive for success in a flexible manner and derive a sense of pleasure from painstaking effort. Normal perfectionists may strive to excel, but are able to lower standards when required.”
In other words, they are able to adapt. It’s when perfectionists fail to adapt that problems occur. This maladaptive perfectionism is one of the driving forces behind highly prosperous people who take their own lives. Kiamanesh et al., distinguish between the two types by clarifying, “[A]daptive perfectionism reflects a positive pursuit toward achievement, whereas maladaptive perfectionism reflects a concern with evaluation and fear of failure when attempting to achieve an unobtainable ideal.”
A Façade of Success Over Inner Turmoil
Adaptability seems to be the outstanding difference in the link between perfectionism and suicide. As was mentioned earlier, four defining characteristics emerged from Kiamanesh’s research: 1) success-driven personality, 2) fear of failure, 3) keeping up false appearances, and 4) rigidity.
Now, by all accounts, family and friends who were interviewed described their deceased loved ones as high-functioning, successful, personally well-adjusted men right up until the moment they killed themselves. But the research reveals that something far more dark and insidious was at work. Just under the surface of their successful façades was a maelstrom of emotional conflict and turmoil.
At this intersection between expectation and performance, adaptability becomes vital for the perfectionist, especially regarding lowering standards where necessary. Noticeably missing from maladaptive perfectionist’s common features is the mental flexibility needed to overcome interpersonal challenges associated with perfectionism.
It appears they simply don’t possess the healthy thinking necessary to adjust their mental outlook, even when everything about their circumstances is screaming at them to do so. Rather, they stay fixed on a never-ending cycle of “do more, do better, don’t fail, smile… do more, do better, don’t fail, smile,” never allowing themselves a moment’s grace to be at peace.
The Danger of Keeping Up Appearances
Finally, it must be said that maladaptive perfectionism is by no means a comprehensive explanation for suicides without warning. People are too complex for that. A rather large caution must not be overlooked. Many of those interviewed for the study said that, upon reflection, they were able to see the indicators of their loved one’s path to suicide more clearly (as is so often the case). But while alive, these individuals didn’t appear to be hurting. In fact, in many cases they appeared to be doing just fine. But that’s really only because they were incredibly good at masking their symptoms.
One of the four characteristics is after all, keeping up appearances—always looking good, and happy, and successful on the outside even if your soul is dying on the inside. This is why it’s so difficult to know what’s really going on with this type of person. They are so very good at hiding their hurt. You will think you really know them. You may even believe you’re close when out of the blue, they take their own life.
While knowing the four features of maladaptive perfectionism is not a guarantee you’ll stop someone in time, it is a start. Hopefully it will at the very least increase your awareness. We all have perfectionists in our lives, and though I’m not advocating we interrogate them with our newfound knowledge, I am saying we should start paying attention for signs of unhealthy expectations, rigidness, fear of failure, etc.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with the advice a wise professor of mine once gave my class regarding suicide: There is never a wrong time, or a wrong way, to talk to someone about whether they’re thinking of killing themselves. If you suspect it, address it.