What To Do When Perfectionism is the Problem
Updated: Aug 21
Many gifted people struggle with a combination of perfectionism and impostor syndrome. Gifted children and adults tend to learn quickly, have excellent memories and are successful in their endeavors. These attributes can become distinct parts of their self identities. As a result, when something becomes excessively challenging, confusing or frustrating a bright person may feel like a failure, an impostor or completely defeated. Everyone can feel frustrated when faced with a challenge, but gifted people often feel deeply pained and can experience an identity crisis when faced with something outside of their comfort zone.
It doesn't help that our culture discourages failure, and pushes people to be “successful” and encourages perfectionism at high costs, starting at a very young age. Many parents begin to worry about their children’s chances in life and want to maximize opportunity from birth onward. They may go to great lengths to start their education early, forgoing important elements of development, such as play, and social/emotional development, pushing for early academic success.
The fear of their children’s future failure drives rational people to make bad decisions. While most are acting out of love, they are also reacting to the highly competitive nature of our society. Unfortunately, some of their actions may be actually inhibiting their children’s growth as individuals, denying them the opportunity to maximize their potential to learn and can leave them unprepared for adulthood.
These cultural expectations can effect gifted people more intensely due to their way of learning, self and parent expectations, sensitive personalities and their needs not being met or understood by adults.
Some of the issues that can contribute to the development of perfectionism in gifted people are:
A constant focus on their intelligence. The mindset that being gifted is their identity and the source of their success can be problematic. When a person is naturally of high intelligence in one or more areas, it is undeniable that they possess this strength and telling them they are exactly the same as everyone else can be disingenuous and confusing to them. It is important to acknowledge their intelligence or talent as a strength, and teach them that it isn’t their only strength or an indication of who they are as a person.
Acknowledging intelligence and talent is different than praising a person for being “smart”. When others constantly attribute a child’s success to being “smart”, it teaches them to have the fixed mindset that their intelligence is something which cannot grow or change, that it is the reason they are successful, and it is an attribute of their personality which they have no control over. It can become the core of their self identity which can lead to unrealistic expectations about themselves.
This type of encouragement can cause people to avoid trying new things, because challenges and potential failure become threats to their identity as smart people. It is better to praise qualities within their control such as hard work, creative problem solving, empathy toward others and learning from mistakes.
Do use current interests and strengths to engage children in activities outside of their comfort zone, or those that are new to them. Often a current interest or strength can provide a launching point or hook to a new interest, or soften something that seems difficult or less interesting.
Teaching children their intelligence can continue to grow over time, and is only one of the strengths they can develop with hard work, learning and deliberate practice can make them more resilient to challenges and open to new experiences. It is also important to teach children everyone has value and brings different strengths to the table, regardless of their perceived intelligence or talent. This will build tolerance and acceptance of their own short comings and those of others, making it easier to build meaningful relationships in all areas of their lives.
Do educate your loved one about their brain differences. Current research supports gifted minds and nervous systems are structurally different causing gifted people to learn more quickly, be more sensitive and develop asynchronously. Teaching about these differences is an important first step in helping gifted people to to better understand and accept themselves. Self acceptance can reduce internal pressure to be perfect. Most gifted people know they are different at a young age, but not necessarily how or why. This can lead to feelings of insecurity, self doubt and a need to be perfect. Understanding more about ourselves empowers us to be the best we can be.
Learning quickly: One of the traits of gifted learners is they learn more quickly than average, and are generally able to grasps concepts with less repetition. While this is not a problem in itself, it can actually hinder growth in learning. When a person is accustomed to learning easily and is faced with something challenging they may avoid the new experience because they have not developed the psychological tools to manage frustration, failure and learning at a slower rate.
Some people may also internalize the difficulty of learning something outside of their comfort zone or area of strength as a threat to their gifted identity, which can feel devastating. This is especially true for children. Asking for help, or admitting they aren't learning something as quickly as usual, can be extremely difficult for gifted children and teens for this reason.
It is important to encourage your gifted loved one to branch out and try new things whenever possible, from a young age. It is easier to learn how to persevere when you are young, and the stakes are low, than when you are older and the consequences are greater. Be kind and show empathy if your child resists or embraces new challenges. Start small, go slow, and do your best to create a safe environment for them to learn. If possible, do the new activity with them, and if they struggle or fail, be encouraging and accepting of them, praising their efforts and the learning process.
Excelling in many areas. When you are good at everything, and most things come easily, failure can create disillusionment and fear.
You can teach your children that mistakes and failure are our friends, who can teach us to learn from what isn’t working. Failure and mistakes create an opportunity for growth, build resilience and the ability to persevere.
Give your children opportunities to make safe mistakes and the chance to fail and then learn from their struggle. This is important at any age, but especially for younger children, as it will help them to develop important skills to navigate the challenges of life as they grow older, and the stakes are higher. It's a good idea to start small, where there is minimal frustration, and chance for humiliation.
The misunderstanding of their needs, and unrealistic expectations. Adults may misunderstand the needs of gifted kids and have unrealistic expectations of them, which can put undue pressure on the kids, create anxiety and encourage perfectionism. When a child is bright, it is easy to forget they are still a developing child of a certain age, who may also have asynchronous development.
Inappropriate expectations of intelligent children teach them it isn’t okay to make mistakes, fail or struggle, leading them to avoid trying new things and stunting intellectual and personal growth. They may accept being held to a higher standard than others, and suffer anxiety because they have not developed the skills to manage the additional stress. Some examples of this are expecting a child or teen to test at 100% to prove they have mastered a skill before they can move to the next level, becoming angry or disappointed if they make mistakes, or telling them they aren't living up to their potential.
Instead, remember, while a child may seem bright beyond their years they still need the support, guidance, good role modeling and empathy of adults. They are still children who need to be taught how to manage frustration, challenges, and failure with kindness to grow. Teaching highly capable people to see failure as a gift to learning can help to relieve anxiety, help them to learn from mistakes and can stoke creativity.
Having mindset that we can grow and change can help all people to be more successful and less stressed about doing everything perfectly. It can be especially helpful for gifted people, who , may be more inclined to focus on their innate abilities, making them afraid to try new things, and left feeling like they are constantly not enough and too much at the same time. An open mindset can create freedom to grow, to explore new ideas and have fulfilling experiences they may not have considered before, as well and relief from the pressure of being perfect.
If you or someone you love battles perfectionism or has difficulty trying new things, reaching out to a trained and experienced professional in your area can help them to overcome what is holding them back.
About the Author:
Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has over 13 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body.