The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Insomnia

Last week someone asked me if perfectionist behaviour, such as planning, tracking and organising, had a relationship to their insomnia. The person asking the question expressed a feeling that their insomnia is what prompted these types of behaviours. They saw a strong tendency toward perfectionism as a way of compensating for the negative consequences of sleep.

The question was: are these behaviours related to insomnia?

The answer is yes, but not in the way you might expect.

Perfectionism and lower sleep quality

Perfectionism is one personality factor that is very strongly associated with the development of chronic insomnia, and perfectionism scores are also strongly associated with lower sleep quality in sleep studies - even in those without insomnia.1,2

Specifically, perfectionism, anxiety over making errors, and unhelpful sleep-related beliefs are directly related to developing chronic insomnia.1,3

Disorted thinking about sleep

Psychologists have also determined that people who are more perfectionistic are more prone to thinking and emotions that run counter to what the facts are. This association is true more generally and also specifically as it relates to sleep.3

You might have imagined the opposite - I assumed that before looking into the research. Distorted thinking about sleep is associated with chronic insomnia because it drives sleep anxiety and unhelpful sleep behaviours.

Unhelpful sleep behaviors and chronic insomnia

People with these traits are more prone to engage in behaviours (like napping, overplanning to avoid consequences, and catching up on sleep) when they suffer from short term sleep troubles. These behaviours can inadvertently encourage the development of chronic insomnia by weakening sleep drive (though staying in bed more and napping), weakening the bed/sleep association (staying in bed awake), and creating daytime sleep effort.

Sleep-related anxiety

People with perfectionistic tendencies are also more prone to fears about making mistakes and taking the wrong actions and decisions in life. My personal thinking is that if someone has a fear about making mistakes, and then also has unhelpful non-fact-based fears about sleeplessness; this combination could create a strong emotional investment for "controlling" sleep and the consequences of poor sleep.

People would feel this result as sleep-related anxiety, and sometimes this "controlling", even though it appears rational on the surface, actually fuels insomnia.

Separating perfectionism from unhelpful sleep-related thinking

It does turn out that in general one's ability to be organised tends to be associated with lower insomnia scores - but that this benefit is eliminated when people engage in unhelpful sleep-related thinking when they can't sleep.4

So it appears one cannot "organise" themselves out of insomnia. But it would also appear that if people can identify and disengage from unhelpful sleep-related thinking that it might be possible that other perfectionistic tendencies (like being organised) could be helpful.

Common sleep-related beliefs

Coaches and therapists use assessment tools that evaluate someone's beliefs about sleep. There are up to 30 statements for a person to rate their level of agreement with, including "I need to get 8 hours of sleep to function well" or "When I can't sleep I should try harder."5

A coach or therapist can identify the most unhelpful thoughts using the tool and can work with the person with insomnia to unpick the fears underneath them and replace them with healthier and more accurate thinking. Sometimes this alone can be enough to eliminate someone's sleep anxiety.

Nothing is always and never

In my experience, the most common unhelpful thoughts that are most easily refuted by the facts are beliefs that start with "always" and "never." Or a repetitive thought about something that has never actually happened. Nothing is always and never, as nearly every single thing people see as a negative consequence related to sleep has had an exception or a different cause. Just putting these into perspective is immensely helpful.

Do you have any thoughts that you recognise are not helpful to your sleep? What are they and how do you cope with them? Please share your thoughts so our whole community can benefit!

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