Perfectionism and the Gifted Adolescent

Recognizing and Helping Gifted Adolescents Deal with their Perfectionistic Tendencies

by Mary Codd

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Many parents and teachers of gifted children have noticed a tendency towards perfectionism in their children and students. Typically in our society when people discuss perfectionism they do so in negative terms, apparently believing that perfectionism is inherently frustrating and destructive. Parents and teachers often feel that they need to cure children of their perfectionist tendencies. However, perfectionism can be viewed as having both positive and negative aspects.

Perfectionists have been described in a negative light as, "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment." (Burns, 1980) Perfectionism has been described as, "the striving for that nonexistent perfection that keeps people in turmoil and is associated with a significant number of psychological problems." (Pachts, 1984) In fact, studies have linked perfectionism to depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, Type A coronary-prone behavior, migraine, psychosomatic disorders, panic disorder, and suicide. Despite the fact that there are studies showing a linkage between perfectionism and these conditions, it does not necessarily follow that perfectionism is the cause, or that perfectionism is inherently destructive.

Rather than always thinking of perfectionism as a negative personality trait that leads to harmful consequences, it is worth considering the positive aspects of perfectionism as well. Think of an Olympic athlete, a world famous violin soloist, or anyone who has risen to the top of their field through hard work, and dedication to their own high standards. Without striving for perfection these individuals almost certainly would not have achieved at the same high levels. For gifted individuals who are exceptionally talented in a given domain performance that approaches perfection is not an unreasonable goal.

Adler (1956) said, "the striving for perfection is innate in the sense that it is a part of life, a striving, an urge, a something without which life would be unthinkable." And Maslow (1970) described perfectionism as the "full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities, etc." Maslow believed that striving for perfection through self-actualization is the absence of neurosis rather than an indication of its presence. Winner (1996) noted that gifted children are well known to be perfectionists, "But being a perfectionist could well be a good thing if it means having high standards, for high standards ultimately lead to high achievement" (Winner, 1996, p. 215).

Hamachek (1978) described both the positive and negative aspects of perfectionism. He viewed perfectionism as multidimensional existing along a spectrum ranging from normal to neurotic. In his definition n ormal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labors of a painstaking effort," and neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good enough to warrant that feeling."

What does the research on perfectionism reveal about perfectionism and gifted children?

Research on perfectionism and gifted children is still in its infancy. At this point there is not enough research to indicate whether perfectionist traits in childhood persist in adolescence and adulthood. Parents and teachers of gifted children often report a high level of perfectionism among these children, and while some recent studies of gifted adolescents indicate that there may be a higher rate of perfectionism among gifted children than in the general population, other studies have found that the rate of perfectionism in the gifted is not higher than in the general population. However, the situation is complicated by the inconsistent definitions of perfectionism that we tend to use. For instance, when a gifted child is described as a perfectionist does the term mean that the child has high personal standards or is used to indicate maladjustment on the part of the child?

A study of perfectionistic gifted adolescents in a rural middle school confirmed that perfectionism is a characteristic of many gifted adolescents. In fact, 87.5% of the gifted adolescents in accelerated courses in the study were identified as having perfectionistic tendencies. (Schuler, 1999) Results from the study supported Hamachek’s theory that perfectionism exists on a continuum from healthy to dysfunctional behaviors.

In the middle school study, “Healthy perfectionists possessed an intense need for order and organization; displayed self-acceptance of mistakes; enjoyed high parental expectation; demonstrated positive ways of coping with their perfectionistic tendencies; had role models who emphasize doing one’s best; and viewed personal effort as an important part of their perfectionism. The dysfunctional perfectionists lived in a state of anxiety about making errors; had extremely high standards; perceived excessive expectations and negative criticisms from others; questioned their own judgments; lacked effective coping strategies and exhibited a constant need for approval.”

Most of the subjects in the middle school study believed that perfectionism was a part of who they were and had memories of being perfectionists since early childhood. Interestingly, a majority of the students said they perceived their perfectionism as having both helpful and detrimental aspects. Positive aspects included “being more organized, working harder, setting priorities in their lives,” and doing better in school and in sports. Negative or harmful aspects of perfectionism in their lives included, “not always enjoying what was happening; time-constraints; having a need for control; burn-out; and being critical of others.”

Another study of middle school students (LoCicero and Ashby, 2000) investigated whether gifted students differed from a group of their peers from the general cohort on a multidimensional measure of perfectionism that included maladaptive as well as adaptive components. The results of the study revealed that gifted students had significantly higher adaptive perfectionism (holding high personal standards), and significantly lower maladaptive perfectionism (increased distress resulting from a discrepancy between one’s standards and one’s performance). These results suggest that gifted students are more perfectionistic (i.e., holding higher personal standards) than general cohort students. However, the results of this study did not support the contention that gifted students experienced distress or maladjustment from their higher levels of perfectionism.

In a study of 820 academically talented sixth grade students, Parker found that contrary to common beliefs, perfectionism is not greater in the gifted. Parker did not view perfectionism as existing along a spectrum from healthy to neurotic. Instead he viewed perfectionism as having a hierarchical structure with both healthy and unhealthy forms. He defined these two forms as separate constructs rather than extreme ends of a single continuum. According to Parker high personal standards, often a source of concern for parents and educators of the gifted, are associated with the healthy form of perfectionism. (Parker, 2000)  

Whether we believe that perfectionism is more common among gifted children than in the general population, or that perfectionism exists along a spectrum from healthy to neurotic like Hamachek believed, or instead is two separate constructs (healthy and unhealthy), it is clear that many gifted children are perfectionists and that perfectionism has both positive and negative aspects. Therefore we need to help our gifted perfectionistic students move away from negative tendencies and toward the more positive aspects of perfectionism. With that need in mind I have included suggestions for parents and teachers below.

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