Thinking About Perfectionism

By Gerald Aungst

Thanks to Gerald Aungst, Curiosity Engineer (@GeraldAungst, www.geraldaungst.com) for writing this guest post.

Parents have many questions while raising a gifted child. Some seek advice about perfectionism.

Many sources, including some psychologists and the National Association for Gifted Children, refer to two types of perfectionism: “healthy” and “unhealthy.”  The healthy type, sometimes called adaptive perfectionism, describes people who consistently pursue excellence and persist in reaching those goals. Greenspon (2000) argues, though, that this isn’t actually perfectionism because those people aren’t seeking perfection. Instead, their behavior may be better described as perseverance, high achievement, and having high standards.

Although it is often listed as a common characteristic of giftedness, research has failed to find a link; in general, perfectionism is as likely to appear in both gifted and non-gifted populations (Pyryt, 2004). It is still worth understanding perfectionism and asking how to support and help gifted children who are perfectionists.

Characteristics of perfectionism

Though perfectionism can manifest differently in different children, there are a few common characteristics:

Perceived conditional acceptance

Perfectionists believe their worth as a person hinges on their ability to perform perfectly. They cannot see their own worth and accept themselves only if they are perfect. This leads to a dichotomy: the child and their work is either perfect, or it is worthless.

Procrastination

Perfectionists can feel intimidated by the need to complete the task perfectly, so they delay or avoid it.

No satisfaction from achievement

Since perfection is not actually achievable, perfectionists gain no satisfaction from real achievements. It doesn’t matter how well they perform or what they accomplish; the child believes their work is never good enough.

Transforming desires (wants) into demands (musts)

When perfectionists want to do something well, they interpret that as a requirement to perform perfectly. This can lead to a compulsive drive to succeed. Perfectionists may also feel guilty if they are not constantly working. There is no downtime.

Addressing perfectionism

Research suggests several things that can help.  Perfectionism is not a disease or disorder. It is a mindset and belief system. Changing this mindset takes time and persistence. Steady, consistent, patient guidance from parents and others over the long term is the most effective course.

Don’t tell them how to be

 “Telling a perfectionist not to be so hard on him- or herself may make logical sense; what he or she is likely to hear, however, is the criticism that he or she has not been a good enough perfectionist” (Greenspon, 2000, p. 206). Remember that they already believe their worth in your eyes is tied to their perfection, so directly telling them what to do or not do will be perceived through that filter.

Recognize that perfectionism isn’t a positive trait

Perfectionism doesn’t necessarily result in high performance. Perfectionism can impede productivity through procrastination and learned helplessness (Ullrich, 2013).

Affirming environment

To turn around a perfectionist child’s self-perception requires the adults around that child to build an affirming environment:

  • Point out your own imperfections and failures, modeling how to persist and feel valued even when you do not succeed.
  • Emphasize effort and process, not end results.
  • Give affection, support, and encouragement liberally regardless of whether goals are met; withholding these can promote perfectionism.

Help children set realistic expectations

Perfectionists have unrealistic expectations for themselves. They set goals beyond their capabilities.

  • Avoid setting high standards that are non-negotiable.  Show children how expectations can change when circumstances change.
  • Know when good enough is good enough. Teach children how to recognize that it is time to be done and move on.
  • Teach children to allocate their time based on the importance of an assignment; perfectionists will spend large amounts of time on a low-value or small task just to keep fine tuning it.
  • Change the goal. Instead of an end-product, focus on improvement and enjoyment.

Study lives of successful people

Though successful people may seem to be models of perfection, help children to learn that most successful people have flaws and failures in their lives.

Perfectionism is a challenge, but with perseverance and support from adults, a perfectionist child can learn to see their inherent worth and that they do not need to be perfect to make a valuable and meaningful contribution to their world.

References

Greenspon, T. S. (2000). “Healthy perfectionism” is an oxymoron! Reflections on the psychology of perfectionism and the sociology of science. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 11(4), p. 197-208.

Greenspon, T. (2010). Tips for Parents: Perfectionism. http://www.davidsongifted.org/search-database/entry/a10567

National Association for Gifted Children. (n.d.). Perfectionism. https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources-parents/social-emotional-issues/perfectionism

Pyryt, M. (2004, June). Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism. http://www.davidsongifted.org/search-database/entry/a10459

Ullrich, J. (2013, September 26). Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity: The truth behind the personality trait. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-modern-time-crunch/201309/perfectionism-roadblock-productivity

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