Perfectionism. Yes. It can be a Problem

Perfectionism. The definition alone can tell you enough to make a connection to your own kid.

  • a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable
  • typically : the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness (Webster’s Dictionary)

Sound like your child? Maybe you even see a little bit of yourself in that definition?

So the big question is, “Isn’t perfectionism a good thing?”

Yes and no. There is a level of perfectionism we all want to strive for, but often our gifted students take it to a much higher level because of their desire to achieve more.

The healthy pieces of perfectionism we should be encouraging are:

  • An intense need for order and organization
  • Self-acceptance of mistakes
  • High parental expectation
  • Positive ways of coping with their perfectionistic  tendencies
  • Role models who emphasize doing one’s best
  • A view that personal effort is an important part of their perfectionism.

However when we start to see our gifted students heading towards more of a “dysfunctional perfectionism” we need to intervene. Here’s what “dysfunctional perfectionism” looks like:

  • A state of anxiety about making errors
  • Extremely high standards
  • Perceived excessive expectations and negative criticisms  from others
  • Questioning of their own judgments
  • Lack of effective coping strategies
  • A constant need for approval

Malow saw perfectionism as a good thing. It helps us realize more about our own human nature in what he refers to as self-actualization. “Self- actualization means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption,” Maslow wrote in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.

So based on these things, perfectionism is a concept that can be both good and bad. The other part of this is there are good and bad things when we look at traits of “healthy” perfectionism and “dysfunctional” perfectionism.

Healthy traits:

  • Need for order and organization
  • Acceptance of one’s own humanness and errors
  • Parental support and role models for high standards
  • Attention to details
  • The awareness that personal effort and high standards are an important part of one’s perfectionism

Dysfunctional traits:

  • Anxiety about making mistakes
  • Perceived pressure from others
  • “Black and white,” or forced choice thinking in many situations, such as “good or bad,” “right or wrong,” or “perfect or failing.”
  • Self-doubt
  • Lack of effective coping strategies
  • A constant need for approval, and a belief that much of one’s success or failure will be determined by outside sources, not personal effort.

Perfectionism is not a trait that is problematic, but with our gifted students it’s the intensity of emotion associated with traits of perfectionism that can lead to behavior issues, self-criticism, family fights, shutting down, resisting the activity… Our gifted students are so passionate about things they love, so when they feel like they have “failed” or it wasn’t “perfect” in their eyes, we have to be on the lookout for intense emotions and reactions to said “failure”. These are the moments where we can teach our gifted student how to cope when things don’t go “just right”. Gifted students need help understanding how to deal with the intense emotions they are feeling because they may not know how to cope effectively with BIG emotions when they feel like they have failed.

Based on “Helpful Tips for Parents of Perfectionistic Gifted Learners” by Susan T. Berry

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