“Recognizing Perfectionism in Gifted Children”
By Debra Troxclair, Parenting for High Potential, Dec. 1999
As a classroom teacher for a decade or so, the initial awe and bewilderment of watching groups of
children become varied, unique, social-emotional beings evolved into a quest for concrete knowledge
of how people become themselves. Each year it became more apparent to me that many intelligent
children were not thinking effectively, creating imaginatively, or reaching toward goals enthusiastically. As I search, read, and questioned other teachers, parents and psychologists, I kept arriving at the same conclusion. Lack of student
enthusiasm for and problems with learning were often grounded in self-esteem. I discovered that one
component of self-esteem gone astray, perfectionism, seemed a strong candidate as the root of many
problems. (It should be noted that perfectionism is a pervasive problem. Just because someone is gifted
neither ensures that he or she will become perfectionistic, nor does it relieve him or her from the
possibility of being particularly vulnerable to this personality characteristic.)
Roots of Perfectionism
Most people know at least one person who has difficulty letting go of projects and tasks until they are “just right.” While most know perfectionism when they see it, few know its origins or how to handle perfectionism in themselves or others. In my review of the research, I uncovered several theories as to the origins of perfectionism that provided insight into its associated behaviors. Understanding perfectionism and its roots is the first step to combating the negative consequences associated with it.
Perfectionism as a Component of Self-Esteem
Perfectionism develops early and creates difficulties that can drastically inhibit the development of a gifted individual’s self-esteem. In her book, Growing Up Gifted, Barbara Clark points out that very early in our lives all of us pass through three stages of personality development, as classified by Erik Erikson, known as the stages of trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. doubt, and initiative vs. guilt. Depending on how children experience these stages, they may develop a sense of confidence and a healthy self-esteem, or they may learn to view themselves as inadequate and unable to accomplish goals.
In the trust versus mistrust stage of development, the roots of inner or outer locus or control are established while a child is still nursing and bundled in diapers. An inner locus of control develops if a child consistently experiences security at this stage. Children feel they have worth and importance, and they feel they are in control of their lives. A perfectionist with an inner locus of control is productive and uses the intensity of the characteristic to forge ahead without wasting time blaming the rest of the world when he or she makes errors. On the other hand, an outer locus of control forms if a child experiences inconsistent nurturing and insecurity. As a result, children feel they have no control over their world. Indeed, they feel as though the world is controlling them. A perfectionist with an outer locus of control is ineffective. Much energy is wasted wishing and hoping the rest of the world would change so that he or she would be able to fit into it better.
In the autonomy versus doubt developmental stage, shame, inadequacy, self-doubt, and low self-esteem may develop if a young child is limited, punished inappropriately, or criticized during this developmental stage. Two types of limitations are overprotection and overuse of the word “no.” In addition, punishment or criticism without positive verbalization to balance it is harmful to gifted children, yet quite common. (Parents should realize that when they go behind their children and redo their chores, it may come across as a way of telling them that their work was not good enough. Teasing relentlessly in an attempt to be playful an also be a form or criticism.) To compound the problem, many young gifted children inherently possess well-developed analytical and critical-thinking skills as a component of their high intelligence. The combination of this inherent trait with behavior modeled by adults who are critical reinforces perfectionism. As children emulate significant adults who are critical of them, they begin to analyze and criticize themselves, calling into question their abilities and talents while forcing them to pursue an ideal that will not be criticized.
As part of the initiative versus guilt developmental stage, children develop either a sense of confidence or a sense of inadequacy. If youngsters are allowed to explore their world via challenging situations and in positive ways, they learn how to deal with people, places, and things with confidence. On the other hand, if inappropriate learning occurs at this stage due to overprotection or criticism, or if significant adults belittle their self-initiated activities, a child may not grow to be a risk-taker. He or she may feel guilty when experiencing or even desiring self-initiated activities because he or she has not received positive reinforcement from adults. Lacking confidence in self-initiated activities, students focus only on what they know they can do “perfectly.” One of my former students refused to use cursive handwriting after months of instruction. His cursive handwriting was above average, but he continued to print in manuscript form and couldn’t take the risk that the new way he had learned to write would match the quality of his manuscript handwriting.
While still young and moving through these three developmental stages, I suspect that many perfectionists experienced situations that led them to feel inadequate and unsuccessful despite their abilities. Therefore, they developed self-images that allowed for nothing less than perfection. In order to feel worthiness, whatever they produced needed to be beyond reproach from anyone who might lay a critical eye on it.
Perfectionism as a Personality Trait
High cognitive abilities enable a child to do things with a high degree of excellence, and a sense of omnipotence leads a child to believe he or she can do all things. Premature superego development (as a result of the gifted child’s greater awareness and sensitivity and the fact that he or she goes through developmental stages faster) makes the child feel he or she is duty-bound to do all things almost perfectly. The gifted child imposes great expectations upon himself or herself. Moral development can occur earlier, too, because the gifted child identifies earlier with parental personalities. This early moral development leads the very young child to mistakenly affirm to him- or herself that he or she has a moral responsibility to master all situations and/or learning experiences quickly, adeptly, and easily.
Perfectionism as a Developmental Vulnerability
Perfectionism, as defined by Wendy Conklin Roedell in her article “Vulnerabilities of Highly Gifted Children,” is a developmental vulnerability of being gifted. It is an inner drive to accomplish tasks coupled with unrealistic expectations of ability. Roedell states that, as an asset, perfectionism assists in achieving tasks that require attention to detail, commitment, and persistence. It can help individuals develop high standards and perserverance, supports extraordinary efforts, and helps individuals use all of their talents and abilities. However, it’s not always an asset. When perfectionists mistakenly believe that they MUST have high standards for every feat, task, and experience, they often impose those high standards on the people they encounter, their view of the world, and most devastatingly, on their own self-esteem.
Behaviors associated with perfectionism
Perfectionism has a long list of accompanying behaviors, and it ranges in intensity with some people
embracing its effects more tightly than others. Some of the manifestations of perfectionism are obvious,
but others are not. The more you and your child become aware of the manifestations of perfectionism,
the better able you will be to deal with it. Consider procrastination. Perfectionists procrastinate in order
to mask the core of the problem, fear of imperfection. Jane B. Burka and Lenora Yuen, two noted
psychologists, offer five reasons for procrastination: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of control, fear of
separation, and fear of attachment. Procrastination results in test anxiety, writer’s block, and paralysis.
When your gifted children fail to turn in assignments on time or at all, consider the source of this
misbehavior. It could be perfectionism.
Perfectionists play other mind games as well. In Perfectionism: What’s So Bad About Being Too Good, Miriam Adderholdt-Elliott and Jan Goldberg describe a number of these games and behaviors.
Mood swinging is the result of fluctuating between the two poles of elation and depression.
A perfectionist sets a goal, meets it, and becomes elated. However, when a goal is not met perfectly,
depression sets in. The perfectionist struggles with the coping skill of “shaking it off” (as the baseball
coach once told my son to do) and getting on with things. Depression and even paralysis can result.
Self-esteem is injured and the person is emotionally exhausted.
The numbers game and all-or-nothing thinking are similar; both are related to the insatiable desires
reflective of perfectionists. The numbers game is characterized by never being satisfied with the
number of accomplishments achieved. An example of all-or-nothing thinking is when a report card filled
with A’s isn’t good enough because there is one B on it.
Focus on the future, pine over the past and telescopic thinking deal with goal setting that has
gotten out of hand. Focus on the future is exhausting because the perfectionist never stops to gloat over the
successful outcome of meeting a goal before he or she dives in the water frantically swimming to
achieve the next goal. When a perfectionist is pining over the past, he or she can’t let go of what he or she
could have done that would have improved a grade, a race time, a project, etc. In telescopic thinking, the
perfectionist looks at goals not met with a magnifying glass, blowing them out of proportion,
while looking at accomplishments through the wrong end of the telescope, minimizing them and looking at
them as insignificant and unimportant.
When perfectionists are playing the putting your goals first game, they always put their achievement
goals ahead of everything else, including family, friends, and health.
The last game, getting it right, is simple to explain; it is “practice makes perfect” taken to the extreme. The perfectionist will not let go of a project until it is “perfect.”
Besides its internal, cognitive repercussions, perfectionism can also affect a person’s relationships.
Loneliness often results when the perfectionist imposes his or her innate standards of perfection on
partners, peer groups, and family members. The perfectionist can project superiority that makes other
feel inferior. Perfectionists also endanger relationships when they over commit themselves to
their goals, becoming obsessed by them and leaving little or no time to experience a relationship.
Awareness and recognition of perfectionism, whiled complicated, is nowhere as difficult as
eradicating perfectionism from one’s personality. If perfectionism is deeply rooted and stubborn and is
causing emotional distress, you may want to seek professional help. It is very important to look for
someone who has experience with gifted and talented children and who understands their special needs,
talents and abilities.
Whether you seek professional help or not, there are things you and your child can do. The first step in
assisting yourself and your gifted child is to become knowledgeable about and be able to recognize the
wide range of perfectionistic behaviors. By making yourself aware of what perfectionism is, learning
how you and society have role-modeled this tendency, and applying corrective action in your own
life, you can help children increase their own awareness and broaden their understanding of this
aspect of self-esteem.
In addition to reading and learning about perfectionism, below are a number of tactics to help
you and your child combat unproductive and unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies. Teach your
gifted child about perfectionism after you’ve learned more about your own perfectionism or the
perfectionism they encounter around them. Tell them that perfectionism is nothing more than a way of
thinking that is harmful and that can be corrected with effort. Model the corrective thought patterns
and talk about them with your child so that he or she is aware of them.
• Teach your child that it’s okay to make mistakes, especially when you are learning something new.
Teach your child to turn mistakes into a lesson and an opportunity rather than regret.
• Teach your child how to say “Oh well!” when things don’t go exactly the way he or she would
like them to or think they should. It will still sting, but by saying those words when something doesn’t
work out perfectly, some of the sense of failure will go away, which will help reduce emotional
• Replace the words should, ought, must, have to with it would be nice if, I might, or I could do so if
• Help your child discover that his or her good enough is usually more than okay, that doing his or
her best is more important than doing it perfectly.
• Teach your child that life isn’t always fair by presenting examples in your life in which you had
to cope with unfairness. When an unfair situation arises, help your child remind himself or herself
out loud that life isn’t always fair.
• Following the phrase “Just do it” helps a procrastinator get started sometimes. It doesn’t
always help, but it does sometimes, and that is good enough.
• Help your child understand that even though he or she learns things quickly and quite well, he or she
is only human and that is good enough. In fact, it is the best he or she will ever be on this planet.
• Teach them that every day brings a fresh start. The past is history and a lesson, not a regret. The future
isn’t here yet. The goal is to do the best you can today.
• Help your child be as perfect as he or she wants to be in one area of his or her life, school subject,
hobby, etc., but teach him or her to lighten up and help them see the funny side of life every day.
• Finally, help your child understand that these thought patterns are thinking habits that didn’t just
pop up over night. In fact, tell him or her that once he or she learns about perfectionistic thinking it
will seem like they are engaging those thought patterns even more. That’s the way it’s supposed
to be and that’s OK. Awareness is the first step in changing a behavior.
Modeling healthy behavior and talking about perfectionistic habits when they occur is a good way
to help your child work through perfectionistic tendencies. As you and your child gain an awareness
and understanding of perfectionism, you can learn to take control of perfectionism instead of allowing it to
control you. No longer do you have to allow perfectionism to limit activities or relationships. You
can learn to assess and prioritize projects according to their value and importance to you, choosing only
those tasks on which you wish to impose high standards. The journey from being a perfectionist
riddled with anxiety to a healthy pursuer of excellence is long and difficult, but very well work
Debra Troxclair teaches in the Dept of Teacher Education at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammand, Louisiana. She is the mother of a gifted and artistically talented son.
More information about Perfectionism can be found on Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page: