Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Are gifted individuals really perfectionists?

One trait commonly associated with giftedness is perfectionism. Both gifted children and adults are often seen as high achievers who pursue excellence and suffer from a sense of failure if they don't succeed. Articles linking giftedness and perfectionism, such as Silverman's, describe different forms of perfectionistic behavior, ranging from healthy to "neurotic," and imply that it is more prevalent among the gifted.

But are gifted people really perfectionists?

Are they really more likely to be perfectionistic than anyone else?

And are we confusing perfectionism with a healthy drive to excel?

I raise these questions because I have not seen an overabundance of perfectionism in my psychotherapy practice with gifted adolescents and adults. Contrary to the (mostly anecdotal) reports in the literature, my clinical experience has suggested otherwise: gifted people, like everyone else, are unique, and in this case, have not necessarily cornered the market on perfectionism. And some research (see below) has also challenged this impression of widespread perfectionism among the gifted. Here are some observations:

1. Gifted individuals often strive for excellence, but their drive is internally motivated.

Gifted children and adults crave meaningful, engaging and stimulating activities that challenge them. Praise from others for their accomplishments or achieving specified goals may bring momentary good feelings, but internal satisfaction is what matters most. Winning an award, nailing an audition, or acing an exam is exciting, but gifted people are quick to appreciate that this form of recognition is temporary and situational. If anything, external demands and goals are often seen as a nuisance and a barrier to fulfilling their true passion.

2. Anyone can be a perfectionist

Perfectionism is not reserved just for the gifted; anyone can be a perfectionist, regardless of intellectual abilities. In fact, those who struggle academically may judge themselves more harshly and suffer from low self-esteem. Regardless of innate abilities, people who doubt themselves, base their self-worth on validation from others, and believe they must conform to external standards are most likely to exhibit perfectionistic traits. These are the people who feel anxious, worry about what others think of them, panic before tests, and exaggerate the importance of success and failure. They may despair because of a slightly less than perfect grade, labor for hours over homework and projects, and obsessively check for mistakes. And it extends well beyond academics and work. We have all seen perfectionists who cannot rest until every dish is washed, every article of clothing is in place, and whose home is spotless.

In fact, many of the traits associated with perfectionism are inconsistent with those commonly seen among gifted people. In order to alleviate anxiety, perfectionists tend to be conforming, detail-oriented, conscientious, and seek external approval. This is counter to how most gifted individuals approach their world. Intrinsically motivated and non-conforming, they often question rules (sometimes even making their own rules), think creatively and refuse to be defined by external norms.

And many gifted individuals do not reach their potential...and don't even try. Perfection is not their concern. Frequently labeled as underachievers, they take short-cuts, develop strategies for exerting the least amount of effort possible, and coast through school or work. Their inertia often goes undetected by teachers or employers since they usually meet their goals. Sometimes they miscalculate, though, and end up failing the exam, missing that important interview or deadline, or handing in an incomplete project, and then have to suffer the consequences.

3. Perfectionism is not more common among gifted people

Perfectionism is not necessarily more prevalent among gifted individuals than among anyone else, although may be more common among high achievers and among women, who have been rewarded for their "good behavior" since childhood. Research by Stornelli and colleagues and by Parker, for example, failed to identify any significant difference between gifted and non-gifted children on measures of perfectionism. Parker concluded that:
"...the frequent anecdotal reports of greater perfectionism among the gifted may be a product of differential labeling patterns of similar behaviors..."
Why have there been so many accounts of perfectionism among gifted people? Perhaps intensity and a drive for excellence were confused with the disabling rigid perfectionism that actually interferes with performance. Perhaps underachieving gifted students were not identified (an unfortunately common occurrence), and therefore not included in these studies. Perhaps the criteria for identifying gifted students in some studies was too broadly defined and included bright high achieving students in addition to those who were clearly gifted. Whatever the reasons, the assumption that gifted people are necessarily perfectionistic, and possess this trait to a greater extent than the rest of the population, certainly warrants further research.

4. Perfectionism is a means of managing and containing anxiety

Perfectionists are plagued by fear, and their attempts to be perfect and please others is a defense against this underlying anxiety and insecurity. They are always looking over their shoulder, wary that any flaw or imperfection will be discovered. They overextend themselves, preparing well beyond what is necessary to minimize any possibility of failure. Terrified of disapproval, they conform to whatever is expected, and suppress their own needs or desires. Like any maladaptive coping behavior, it backfires, and the original intention (to suppress anxiety and restore a sense of calm) is never achieved.

5.  Perfectionism is debilitating and distressing 

Perfectionism is maladaptive and often linked to more serious emotional disturbance. Whether a defense against anxiety, a means of seeking approval, or an attempt to boost low self-esteem, it is problematic. Distinctions between "healthy and neurotic" perfectionism create confusion and downplay the seriousness of the behavior. As Greenspon notes:
"...a body of literature asserts that some perfectionism is healthy, even though a critical review of this literature finds no factual or theoretical basis for such a claim. The commonly asserted belief in a dichotomy between healthy and dysfunctional perfectionism is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of perfectionism, in part confusing the concept with striving for excellence..."
When self-worth hinges on grades and performance, when less than perfection is viewed as failure, perfectionism becomes a ball and chain. Many perfectionists actually perform worse than expected because their anxiety interferes with their performance, they procrastinate until the last minute, or they give up completely if they fail to meet their own high standards. At its worst, perfectionism can trigger low self-esteem and additional unintended anxiety, and has been linked to serious mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, and even suicide.

Final thoughts...

Let's think twice before assuming that gifted people are any more likely to be perfectionists than anyone else. A healthy desire to achieve excellence and "perfect" a meaningful task should not be confused with true perfectionism. Gifted people may hold high standards for themselves and strive to excel, but this may come from a realistic assessment of their actual potential. They realize what they can accomplish if they put in the effort. And if they are fortunate, anxiety and perfectionism will not block their path.

Perfectionism may seem like a behavior that is impossible to eliminate. A future blog post will address some tips for reducing perfectionistic behaviors. But If you or a loved one struggle with perfectionism, consider counseling with a licensed mental health professional, who can address the behaviors, thoughts, and anxiety associated with it and encourage new coping strategies.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Anxiety.
To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: