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Perfectionism and the Highly Gifted Child

by Shaun Hately

Many have asked for suggestions about how to deal with the perfectionism of the highly gifted, and also the depression. Suggestions yes - although I should say upfront that I was susceptible to both these things, and still am to a lesser extent, so they're not problems I've really been able to solve. I do have some ideas on what might work, and what helped me. These are all only my opinions.


In terms of perfectionism, parents have to try to avoid putting pressure on children to be perfect - teachers and schools too ideally, although it may be very difficult to avoid perfectionism within a school environment - or any environment where parents don't have direct control.

By not putting pressure on children, I don't just mean telling them "you don't have to be perfect." I think that's a good start but it's not really enough in many cases. In my case, both of my parents are/were perfectionists themselves so it isn't surprising I developed those attitudes. Both of them came from backgrounds which required them to work very hard in order to achieve success (eventually they were both NCOs in the Australian Navy) and this meant that both had an attitude that doing less than your best was unacceptable. Eventually they realized that these attitudes were harming me, by forcing me to always seek perfection and being devastated when I did not, so they tried to do something about it, but with only limited success.

This was because they replaced the statement "second best is not good enough, you have to strive for perfection" by which I was brought up with the alternative statement "we don't expect you to be perfect, we just expect you to do your best." That really wasn't much of an improvement in my case, because I knew and they knew that my best was perfection - at least in terms of academic success. Being told you only need to do you best is no different from being told you need to be perfect, when your best equates to perfection.

And even when they tried telling me I didn't have to be perfect, it didn't help matters that much because their 'body language' and general performance said differently. I saw them achieving whatever they set out to achieve and continually trying until they did succeed, and I wanted to emulate them. I wanted their approval. So despite their words I still felt the need to be perfect.

What would have helped me? Not them lowering their standards - that would have been a bad idea - but by them making me aware of the mistakes they had made. I never saw these, I only saw their successes, and I was genuinely unaware that for everything they achieved, there had probably been some missteps, even if they succeeded in the end.

Secondly, I think it's important for parent particularly with a gifted child to encourage their children to take risks - to do hard things, even knowing they will fail sometimes. Perhaps it is advisable to find something the child is not good at (perhaps sport) and encourage them to do it - not something they are necessarily bad at, but something that they have to work for and they don't always do perfectly. If a child has never experienced failure, they will eventually come to view anything less than total success as a failure. I didn't distinguish degrees of success or failure - there were no partial successes, only total successes and failures.

Also bear in mind that a gifted child may want to be perfect - they may want to succeed, and so they may push themselves very hard even without parental pressure. I know perfectionism is a problem, but I think that sometimes in an effort to avoid it, parents can end up making a child feel that there is something wrong with wanting to do well, and that desire may be an inherent part of them.

I had extensive psychological counseling growing up, and one of the people I saw explained to me the difference between 'the pursuit of excellence' and 'perfectionism'. He explained to me that sometimes the end results of these can be the same, but that one is healthy and one isn't. He gave me a list of examples of 'pursuit of excellence' as compared to 'perfectionism' which helped me to understand that and develop a different approach.

I found the list very useful because it helped me to see that there was a difference between these two things and also that abandoning perfectionism did not mean lowering the standards - it merely meant changing the views that lead me to those standards. These originally came from a book about perfectionism, but I never had the book so I'm unaware of its title.  [Editor's note: the source of this list is Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good?, by Miriam Adderholdt and Jan Goldberg]

The Pursuit of Excellence vs. Perfectionism

bulletThe pursuit of excellence = doing the research necessary for a term paper, working hard on it, turning it in on time, and feeling good about it.
bulletPerfectionism = doing three drafts, staying up two nights in a row, and handing your paper in late because you had to get it right - and still feeling bad about it.
bulletThe pursuit of excellence = studying for a test ahead of time, taking it with confidence, and feeling good about your score of 96.
bulletPerfectionism = studying at the last minute (after three days of chronic procrastination), taking the test with sweaty palms, and feeling depressed about your 96 because a friend got a 98.
bulletThe pursuit of excellence = choosing to work on group projects because you enjoy learning from the varied experiences and approaches of different people.
bulletPerfectionism = always working alone because no one can do as good a job as you and you're not about to let anyone else slide by on your "A".
bulletThe pursuit of excellence = accepting an award with pride even though the engraver misspelled your name. (You know that it can be fixed later at the jewelry store).
bulletPerfectionism = accepting the reward resentfully because that dumb engraver didn't get your name right.
bulletThe pursuit of excellence = reading the story you wrote for the school paper and noticing that the editor made some changes to the copy that really improved it.
bulletPerfectionism = throwing a near tantrum because the editor dared to tamper with your work.
bulletThe pursuit of excellence = going out with people who are interesting, likeable, and fun to be with.
bulletPerfectionism = refusing to go out with people who aren't straight "A" students.
bulletThe pursuit of excellence = being willing to try new things, take risks, and learn from your experiences and your mistakes.
bulletPerfectionism = avoiding new experiences because you're terrified of making mistakes.

At the bottom of the sheet of paper this list is written on is the following:

"It is when we stop trying to do everything right that we start to do things well. These two things are not the same - but neither are they mutually exclusive."

These examples did help me to understand the difference between trying for the best, and having to be perfect, and in the end I did find that I did at least as well with much less stress.

It may help if you take this approach with your child - point out to them that moving away from perfectionism doesn't mean having to drop standards - it's a change in outlook, not necessarily a change in final results. If they have the ability, they may still achieve the same results, but they'll be doing it by concentrating on the path taken to achieve a result rather than the result itself - there is a real difference.

People tried to 'cure' me of perfectionism, which I resented - I felt they were asking me to lower my standards. As soon as I came to realise I could maintain my standards, but without having to be perfect, it became much easier for me to change.


In terms of depression, I have much less useful (or otherwise) advice. This is because I have never conquered my depression. I am diagnosed as a clinical depressive and I control it with medication. This is something I resisted for a long time - I hate the idea of drugs controlling me or my mind (yes, I know that that really isn't what anti-depressants do, but I'm not always entirely rational, and my fears often are not). Eventually I realised my depression was controlling me and taking the medication was actually helping me to reassert the control I should have - at least that's the way I see it.

All I can suggest is that parents be alert to the signs of depression and take them seriously - my mother tells me she knew I was depressed from about the age of 15, even though I only realised it at about 18 (I've now worked out I first developed depression at around 11-12). She simply didn't know what to do about it - she tried to get me help but I resisted. But at least, her knowledge of the problem, meant there was an opportunity for help.

Also parents have to take their children's concerns seriously - I think, especially with younger children. Many people get depressed for fundamentally irrational reasons, so it can be very easy to dismiss their depression. It doesn't matter if the cause of depression is rational or not - it still needs to be dealt with. Many people seem to take depression, especially in adolescents much less seriously than they should. Of course, sometimes it isn't a major or long-term problem, but it obviously can be.

The only other thing I can add is that parents need to try and stop their children becoming afraid of depression. It needs to be treated as an illness like measles etc. Many people, unconsciously or otherwise, attach a stigma to depression - they make it out to be a sign of weakness, or they make it into a huge life-threatening problem. I know of a girl who has spent the last fifteen months refusing to tell her parents she was depressed because she was sure they would overreact, and start watching over her like a hawk in order to stop her suiciding (which was not a risk initially - her depression was mild and a bit of help would have probably dealt with it).

People are frightened of depression - parents especially - because it can be a very serious life-threatening problem. But at other times, it can be a short-term problem and can be quite mild. Unlike most illnesses, it's very hard to determine which it is, so some parents can overreact - understandable, because of their fear of suicide, but also potentially very dangerous to the chance of a child telling their parents. By the time I did manage to persuade this girl to tell her parents what was going on she had allowed things to get so bad, that suicide was beginning to be a risk - her fear of her parents overreacting to a minor problem turned it into a major one.

That's really all I know of to say. I hope it may be of some value.

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