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Interview with Thomas Greenspon on Perfectionism

Gifted Education and Support

The following Q&A on misdiagnosis was written by Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D, a psychologist, author, marriage and family therapist nationally known for his work with gifted and talented children, adults, couples and families.

What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a desire to be perfect (not “almost perfect”), a fear of imperfection, and an emotional conviction that mistakes are signs of personal defects, and that being perfect is the way to be acceptable to others. The intense anxiety about mistakes is what separates perfectionistic people from those who simply pursue excellence. We’re all disappointed when we make a mistake or don’t make our goal; perfectionistic people may, in contrast, be devastated by this.

Is there more than one type of perfectionist?
Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt, who have been researching perfectionism for many years, have found that perfectionistic people may emphasize one of three different aspects. Self Oriented Perfectionists seem to be hardest on themselves. Other Oriented Perfectionists push those around them to be perfect. Those who feel pressured to do well for others are termed Socially Prescribed Perfectionists. In practice, perfectionistic people may actually be seen emphasizing one or another of these facets at any particular time, rather than being different types of perfectionists overall.

There are certainly what I would call different “flavors” of perfectionism. Some perfectionistic people, for example, would never be late for anything, while others are chronically late because there are always things to get done — perfectly — before leaving for an appointment. Some perfectionistic students get everything done ahead of time, while others procrastinate because they fear getting a less-than-perfect grade. The behaviors may look different, but underneath the differences lie common roots: anxieties about making mistakes, and about not being acceptable.

Although there have been attempts to refer to some perfectionism as “healthy” or “adaptive,” it is important to understand that the anxiety inherent in all perfectionism is never a good thing. Many perfectionists are responsible, conscientious, hard-working, and talented; none of these positive personal qualities can be said, though, to represent “positive perfectionism,” and if perfectionism could be eliminated completely, none of these personal qualities would change and a great burden would be lifted.

What problems can arise with perfectionism?
Most of the time, perfectionistic people simply experience a kind of chronic anxiety that goes with always having to do things the right or best way. For some, there can be more serious consequences. When depression is also part of the picture, the hopelessness of ever being able to be good enough can make the depression worse, sometimes to the point of becoming suicidal. Perfectionism can make eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, or obsessive compulsive disorders much harder to treat (and vice versa). Because some perfectionistic people can be hard on others around them, intimate or friendship relationships can also suffer. Another serious, and seemingly paradoxical problem with perfectionism is that the anxiety that goes with it actually interferes with success. That’s the basis for the old adage: “The perfect is the enemy of the good!”

Are there signs educators can look for to determine if their students have perfectionist tendencies?
It’s easy to miss some perfectionistic gifted kids in school, since what you see is assignments being done well and handed in on time. A closer look might reveal anxious concerns about work being done in class, or about grades earned on work already handed in. Although many perfectionistic kids get their work done ahead of time, some are examples of a different “flavor” of perfectionism: procrastination. Not all procrastinators are perfectionistic, but sometimes kids seem less concerned about the nagging of parents and teachers than they are about handing work in and risking getting less than a perfect grade. As a result, they put off completion. If you see a student struggling with getting work started, or frequently re-starting because it isn’t “just right;” or if so much time is spent getting the answers to the first questions on a test just right that time runs out for completing the test, perfectionism may be part of the picture.

Which classroom strategies would be most effective?
Perfectionism is a self esteem issue. Mistakes are seen as evidence of personal flaws, and there is a fear of not being personally acceptable. While it is important to encourage students, especially gifted ones who will most likely do fine, to relax and not worry so much about outcomes, it is typically hard for teachers to be helpful in this way because it doesn’t address the underlying anxiety. The stage needs to be set by initiating a conversation with the student. Mentioning your concerns about what you see, and wondering out loud about why getting things just right, or completely avoiding mistakes, is so important, is a good first step. Ask yourself whether your own expectations that a gifted student always do outstanding work might be in play. See if you can start an ongoing conversation about these concerns; this can typically be more powerful if parents are brought in as well. Do they see the same things at home? Have they talked about it? Is perfectionism a family trait?

There is a particular empathic understanding which is crucial to helping perfectionistic kids. While perfectionistic people can seem overwrought, overbearing, or puzzling in the intensity of their concerns, it’s important to keep in mind that fear sometimes motivates us to do crazy things. Perfectionistic people are not being dense or missing a point about the futility of their concerns; they are hoping to find a way to demonstrate that they are OK, and acceptable to others. Addressing those concerns is the essence of helping someone move past perfectionism.

A fuller discussion of these ideas can be found in my books, “Moving Past Perfect: How Perfectionism May Be Holding Back Your Kids (And You!), And What You Can Do About It,” and “What To Do When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough: The Real Deal On Perfectionism.” For counselors and those working professionally with gifted kids, see “Perfectionism: A Counselor’s Role in a Recovery Process,” in the “Handbook for Counselors Serving Students With Gifts and Talents,” edited by Tracy and Jennifer Cross.

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