On January 6, 2009, CNN reported that a German billionaire Adolf Merckle died by suicide, jumping in front of a train as his fortunes declined from $12.8 billion to $9.2 billion in 2008. CNN offered the following explanation: “The financial troubles of his companies, induced by the international financial crisis and the uncertainty and powerlessness to act independently…broke the passionate family business man, and he took his own life.”

My clinical guess is that Adolf Merckle was a casualty of perfectionism, not of the economy.  CNN’s explanation of the reasons behind the suicide is replete with red flags of perfectionism.  Let’s take a close look at this psychological autopsy. 

The press release notes that the suicide was precipitated by the “financial troubles” of Merckle’s company.  Merckle didn’t lose everything, he didn’t go broke—he just moved down in rank from forty-fourth to ninety-fourth on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people.  His fortunes “declined,” but they didn’t vanish.  This was a case of partial failure, not complete failure; but, for the all-or-nothing perfectionistic mind, partial failure means total failure.

The press release indicates that Merckle was troubled by “uncertainty and powerlessness to act independently.”  This is typical of perfectionists, as they are indeed threatened by the prospect of relinquishing control.  Merckle, according to this press release, was a “passionate family business man.” The significance that I see here has to do with the typical blurring of private and professional. Merckle’s business was a family business, therefore professional failures were personal failures.  But even if his business had not been a family business, Merckle, if he was at all like other perfectionists I know, would have probably taken his professional failings personally.  That’s what perfectionists do:  they live for success and depend on it for meaning.

Vincent Foster, the former Deputy White House Counsel under President Clinton who, too, died by suicide, is another likely casualty of perfectionism. Dr.  SidneyAuthor Blatt, a Yale psychiatrist, in an article on destructiveness of perfectionism, wrote of Vincent Foster as being “typical of numerous examples of talented, ambitious, and successful individuals who are driven by intense needs for perfection and plagued by intense self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-criticism” (1995,1005).

Let’s face it: perfectionism isn’t cheap.

What’s been the cost of your perfectionism?  Anxiety, worry, depression? Failed  relationships?  Procrastination?  What passed you by as you crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s?


Cutting the Costs of Perfectionism

A Soldier of the Abstract is a Soldier of the Absurd

Acceptance-Based Perfectionism: Paradigm Shift