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Perfectionism and the Gifted:
What's Good, What's Bad?

by Mary Ann Swiatek, Ph.D.,
Reprinted from C-MITES News, Fall 2003

When many of us hear the word "perfectionism," we picture a neurotic, uptight person who is unable to function due to constant frustration over an inability to measure up to his or her own impossibly high standards. Therefore, when we hear that gifted individuals often are perfectionistic, we worry. What we fail to understand is that perfectionism is not inherently a destructive force. In fact, it can be a very positive, productive force—one that is necessary to great achievement.

Perfectionism involves envisioning ideals and striving to achieve them. Gifted individuals' strong abstract reasoning abilities promote their capacity to envision ideals, which are abstract representations of what could be. This vision, combined with high general ability and intense emotions, may account for the relatively high rate of perfectionism in gifted individuals.

The development of perfectionism as either a productive or destructive force depends on the direction it takes. In recognition of the healthy and unhealthy types of perfectionism, many authors employ contrasting terms, such as enabling perfectionism vs. disabling perfectionism and excellence vs. perfectionism.

As a productive force, perfectionism is the drive to do one's best, resulting in satisfaction and pleasure with one's achievements. It provides the motivation students need to aim high and reach challenging goals—to fulfill their potential. "Without perfectionism, there would be no Olympic champions, no great artistic endeavors, no scientific breakthroughs, no exquisite craftsmanship, no moral leaders. It is a basic drive to achieve excellence" (Silverman, 1993, pp. 58-59).

Problems can arise, however, if standards are unrealistic and inflexible. If a person defines "success" as a product so perfect it can never be achieved, expects a perfect performance on the first attempt, and defines anything else as "failure," that person is prone to frustration and disappointment. The problems are compounded when one's self-esteem is based largely on achieving "success" according to this definition. This kind of unhealthy perfectionism has been linked to underachievement because, intent on avoiding failure, a student may set only lowlevel goals that are certain to be accomplished, or may become immobilized by the fear of failing so that he or she is unable to start a task or is unable to progress once the task is begun.

Parents and teachers both can help ensure that gifted students channel their perfectionistic tendencies in healthy, productive ways. Remember that the idea is not to eliminate perfectionism, but to guide it in a productive direction.

  • Take the student's concerns seriously. Simply telling a child to "loosen up" is unlikely to be effective. The desire to produce high-quality work is an appropriate goal that should be acknowledged and promoted.
  • Try to teach students that mistakes are a normal and necessary part of learning. Adults can help to make this point by focusing more on the learning process ("What did you learn? What would you do differently next time?") and less on evaluation ("What grade did you get?").
  • Help young children to understand that although their (advanced) minds may generate a clear picture of an ideal product, their bodies may not yet be well-developed enough to produce this product without help.
  • Help children to prioritize, so they are not trying to be perfect in everything all the time.

With support and assistance, perfectionistic gifted students can learn to make their perfectionism work for them—to remain focused, detail-oriented, and committed to lofty goals without becoming unrealistic; to value the learning and working processes and not just the products; to evaluate their own work instead of relying on others' opinions; and to take appropriate pride and pleasure in their accomplishments. In the long run, it is these abilities that foster excellence.

For Further Information:
Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1991). Perfectionism and the gifted adolescent. In M. Bireley & J. Genshaft (Eds.), Understanding the gifted adolescent: Educational, developmental, and multicultural issues (pp. 65-75). New York: Teachers College Press.

Brophy, J. (1996). Working with perfectionist students (Report No. EDO-PS-96-9). Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 400 124).

Silverman, L. K. (1993). A developmental model for counseling the gifted. In L. K. Silverman (Ed.), Counseling the gifted and talented (pp. 51-78). Denver: Love.

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