Author: Carole C. Peters
Excellence in Education, Perth
This paper gives an overview of a range of definitions of perfectionism and considers the link between giftedness and perfectionism, the quest for self-actualization and the management of perfectionism. Much of the paper is based on the work of Silverman (1995) who believes that perfectionism is an inevitable part of being gifted and an energy which can be channeled positively and viewed as a strength in those who have the potential to achieve excellence.
What is good and necessary for ultimate high achievement - that is, setting high and demanding (but not unattainable) goals for oneself - can be either a positive or a negative force in a person's life. The point is illustrated by Parker and Adkins (1995) in the following example:
At the Olympic Games, a sprinter in speed-skating stands crouched and poised at the starting line. She has trained five hours daily for four years for a race that will take seconds. She knows that to win she must have an excellent start and maintain almost perfect form. (p. 173)
The authors ask: "Is this an example of a healthy, self-actualizing (individual) striving for excellence, or of a neurotic, obsessive preoccupation with perfection?" The same question can be asked of any type of striving for excellence and the rigorous application of effort it requires. Parker and Adkins suggest that while striving for excellence in some individuals can be considered unhealthy when the striving is unrealistically high, it is difficult to determine what goals are unrealistically high when dealing with the gifted.
Silverman (1995) believes that the value placed on perfectionism is culturally determined:
When the drive for perfection is applied to a competitive field and the individual is perceived as having the talent to compete on a national or international level, then his or her perfectionism is encouraged. When it is applied to an area considered "irrelevant" to society, it is discouraged.(p. 4)
Silverman stresses that we must value the positive aspects of perfectionism because the vision of what is possible and the determination to create ones life as a reflection of that vision mark those with higher level development.
Whether perfectionism is viewed in a pejorative sense or not, gifted learners do seem concerned about accomplishment and the pursuit of excellence. Schmitz and Galbraith (1985, p. 20) feel that this concern stems from the awareness of quality and the ability of the gifted person to discern the difference between the mediocre and the extraordinary. Once a person can perceive excellence and can sense "how it ought to be done" the desire to achieve that level of excellence may become intense. The corresponding awareness of the possibility of failure accompanies the drive for perfection. The gifted can feel inferior if they do not meet the high standards they set for themselves and unfulfilled if they do not strive for the quality of performance of which they know they are capable.
Definitions of Perfectionism
Definitions of perfectionism are inconsistent. Hamachek (1978) is quoted by Parker and Adkins (1995, p. 173) as describing two types of perfectionism - the normal and the neurotic. Normal perfectionists are described as individuals who "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labors of a painstaking effort" while Hamachek defines neurotic perfectionists as those "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good (sic) enough to warrant that feeling".
Roedell (1984) supports the view that perfectionism has both positive and negative aspects:
In a positive form, perfectionism can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. The meticulous attention to detail necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realiZes the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism. Setting high standards is not in itself a bad thing. However, perfectionism coupled with a punishing attitude towards one's own efforts can cripple the imagination, kill the spirit, and so handicap performance that an individual may never fulfill the promise of early talent. (p. 127)
Viewing perfectionism from a more negative perspective, Burns (cited in Parker & Adkins, 1995, p. 173) defines perfectionists as "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment." Also negative is Pacht (cited in Parker & Adkins, 1995, p. 173) who views perfectionism as "the striving for that nonexistent perfection that keeps people in turmoil and is associated with a significant number of psychological problems." A number of researchers sharing Pacht's concern have linked perfectionism with depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, migraine, personality and psychosomatic disorders, Type A coronary-prone behavior and suicide.
Hewitt and Flett (cited in Silverman, 1995 p. 3) identify three components of perfectionism: self-oriented (unrealistic standards for self), other-oriented (unrealistic standards directed toward others), and socially prescribed (belief that others have perfectionistic expectations and motives for oneself). Their research links clinical depression with self-oriented perfectionism and antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders with other-oriented perfectionism. While this theory introduces a multidimensional perspective to perfectionism it still focuses on the negative aspects.
Adderholt-Elliot (1989, p. 19) describes five characteristics of perfectionist students and teachers which contribute to under-achievement: procrastination, fear of failure, the all-or-nothing mindset, paralyzed perfectionism, and workaholism. Procrastination is a complex problem affecting many perfectionists. The fear of being imperfect and the dread of not living up to one's own and others expectations can cause overwhelming feelings leading to profound procrastination. Putting it off until the absolute last second is a painful avoidance tactic employed by perfectionists.
Related to the procrastination of the perfectionist is the fear-of- failure syndrome. Apathy can result from perfectionism when a person knows he or she will never measure up one hundred percent. It may be better to delay taking action or take no action at all than to risk failure. Further related to the fear-of-failure syndrome is paralyzed perfectionism. According to Adderholt-Elliot (1989 p. 20) paralyzed perfectionists are so afraid of being wrong that instead of taking chances, they resort to complete inertia. They may also have problems with decision making, searching for the one perfect solution to a situation rather than choosing from a variety "less perfect" possibilities.
The perfectionist exhibiting the workaholic syndrome is dependent on performance since self-esteem is tied to external rewards. Adderholt-Elliot (1989, p. 19) says that workaholics have trouble with delegation because no one can achieve to their high expectations. They also have a hard time saying "no" thus over-committing themselves, and they have lost a sense of balance in their lives.
The 'perfection complex' is defined by Reis (cited in Ellis & Willinsky, 1990) in relation to gifted females:
Many bright young females believe that they must be perfect in everything they attempt to do. Accordingly, they invest considerable energy in trying to be the best athlete, the best dancer, the best scholar, the best friend, and the best daughter. Additionally, bright young girls often feel that they must also be slender, beautiful, and popular. The perfection complex causes them to set unreasonable goals for themselves and to constantly strive to achieve at even higher levels. (p. 38)
A complicating factor can occur when females attribute their success to factors other than their own efforts and see their outward image as a bright successful achiever as being undeserved or accidental. This tendency for gifted girls to attribute their accomplishments to external forces and not to themselves has been labeled the "Impostor Syndrome" and is a result of conflicting and competing messages about the role of women in today's society (Reis in Ellis & Willinsky, 1990, p. 38). Gifted girls and women can strive to become even more perfect as they downplay their hard-won achievements and impose on themselves standards which are impossibly high.
Several major personality theorists have viewed some aspects of perfectionism as either healthy or essential to the human condition (Parker & Adkins, 1995, p. 173). Adler (1956) claims that "the striving for perfection is innate in the sense that it is part of life, a striving, an urge, a something without which life would be unthinkable." Parker and Adkins point out that Adler's striving for perfection is suggestive of the view of self-actualisation later focused on by Maslow (1970). According to Maslow's formulation (cited in Parker & Adkins, 1995, p. 173), striving for perfection through self-actualisation is an indication of the absence of neurosis rather than an indication of its presence.
Silverman (1995) adds another dimension to the concept of perfectionism:
Perfectionism is the least understood aspect of giftedness. It is perceived by most people as a problem to be fixed. However, my own experience...has led me to believe that perfectionism is an inevitable part of the experience of being gifted... Even individuals who appear easy going on the surface work to excess in realms they really care about. (p. 1)
Silverman believes that perfectionism needs to be appreciated as a two-edged sword that has the potential for propelling an individual toward unparalleled greatness or plummeting one into despair. The secret to harnessing its energy is to appreciate its positive force, learn how to set priorities and to avoid imposing one's own high standards on others.
"It can be best thought of as an energy that needs to be channeled in positive directions rather than as a malady to be cured"(Silverman, 1995, p. 1).
Perfectionism and Giftedness
If we choose words such as high achiever, striving for excellence and perseverance we are more likely to view the perfectionist in a positive light. Silverman (1995, p. 1) points out that excellence is a cherished goal for only a small portion of the population. The drive to be perfect is selective; it only visits those who have the potential to achieve excellence. Silverman also points out that the link between giftedness and perfectionism is inevitable for several reasons:
The sine qua non of intelligence is the capacity for abstract reasoning, and perfectionism is an abstract concept. An affinity for perfectionism is as natural to the gifted as a love of mathematics or literature.
Perfectionism is a function of asynchrony: gifted children set standards according to their mental age rather than their chronological age.
Many gifted children have older playmates so they tend to set standards appropriate for their older friends.
Many gifted children have enough forethought to enable them to be successful in their first attempts at mastering any skill. They come to expect success and fear failure since they have had little experience with it.
When work in school is too easy the only challenge a gifted child can create is accomplishing the work perfectly.
Perfectionism is a distortion of the desire for self-perfection which is a positive evolutionary drive. It manifests as dissatisfaction with "what is" and a yearning to become what one "ought to be' (Debrowski & Piechowski, 1977, p. 42). There is an inner knowing that there is more to life than the mundane and a desire to create meaning in one's own life by doing the best one is capable of doing. (Silverman, 1995)
Maslow's concept (1970) of the full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities and potentialities in the pursuit of self-actualisation is taken further by Debrowski (1964, 1972). Silverman's interpretation (1995) helps clarify Debrowski's theory:
At first, individuals are motivated to make full use of their capabilities, to do the very best they can possibly do in any endeavor. As development proceeds, the focus of the perfectionism changes from manifesting some perfect something in the world to inner development. There is an emerging sense of mission or purpose of one's existence. At this point, perfectionism is in the service of self-actualisation. (p. 3)
Perfectionists set high standards for themselves, they strive to utilize their full potential and may be overly self-critical when they do not measure up to their own expectations. They may also derive great satisfaction from meeting the challenge, from pursuing the seemingly impossible goal, from focusing intensely on the process necessary to attain the goal. As Silverman (1995 p.3) points out: "The process of pursuing a goal to the best of one's ability may be so rewarding that the attainment of the goal is of only secondary importance."
Perfectionists have an inner need to fulfill their own expectations even if no one else sees the need to do so. Roeper (1991, p. 95) believes that gifted adults are perfectionists in terms of their own standards and expectations, not necessarily in terms of the expectations of the outside world. "They feel very guilty if they cannot carry out what they expect from themselves. Many cannot stand injustice and feel compelled to stand up for their beliefs whatever they are." This sense of justice, the perceptive insight and the demanding search for truth is a positive force often highly developed in the gifted in their search for meaning in both the inner and outer world. Roeper (1991) explains the higher level of inner conflict often experienced by the perfectionist and the gifted individual:
The conflicts are often connected with feelings of guilt for not having lived up to their own expectations, with feelings of disappointment, panic, complete lack of power, and using their creativity to conjure up the worst scenario. These feelings may grow out of an inability to truly make sense of their own life. (p. 97)
Individuals with the capacity to pursue excellence, to seek self-actualisation and to search for meaning in life also tend to have a heightened capacity to listen to themselves, to work through their problems and to find ways of healing themselves (Roeper, p.97) The process may often be painful but the reward of self-growth and creative expression can produce profound satisfaction and a sense of increased awareness and understanding. The feeling of aliveness which comes through discovery and personal expression can be enormous.
Clark (1992) suggests that:
One of the best ways to aid a child to handle perfectionism is to discuss some of the problems you have faced and the strategies you have used to work on your own perfectionist need. Most parents of gifted children and teachers attracted to working with them have had or are having similar problems. Children like to hear how we solve problems that are similar to theirs.(p. 151)
Students can be helped to cope with perfectionism by accepting it as a basic part of their giftedness, by emphasizing its positive aspects, and by acknowledging the anxiety and frustration it provokes (Silverman, 1995, p. 4). Difficult challenges generate anxieties which require inner strength and a great deal of persistence to overcome. Gifted learners need support to persist despite constant awareness of failure. Excellence takes more time and hard work than mediocrity.
Parents of gifted children are often blamed for their children's perfectionism; they are accused of pressuring their children with their unrealistic expectations. Dysfunctional families are usually held accountable for the condition. However both Silverman and Kerr (in Silverman, 1995, p. 3) believe that the most of the pressure of exacting standards comes from within the child and stems from the child's need for an orderly environment, or conversely, an aversion to chaos.
If as an adult you are still struggling to understand your own perfectionism and the inner turmoil which often accompanies it try listing some of its advantages. Striving for excellence, particularly in an area which you feel passionate about, which adds meaning to your life and increases your well-being can be seen in a positive light. The passion in one person can be an inspiration for others; standing up for one's beliefs and not accepting second best can question traditional and conformist attitudes and instigate change.
Don't be ashamed of being perfectionistic, of achieving to a high level and making a difference. Acknowledge this need, the drive to excel, the persistence it requires and the often difficult path to fulfilling the inner drive for perfection. Recognize the need to set priorities and to make decisions about the things which really are important to you. Take time for reflection, including time to reflect on your accomplishments, and view mistakes as a necessary part of the learning experience.
Women who find themselves in the double bind of striving for perfection at home and at work, trying to be everything for everybody, may need to look very carefully at setting priorities, delegating, saying "no" and challenging traditional views on "the woman's role". Silverman and Conarton (1993, p.51) explain that contemporary women are presented with a myriad of overwhelming choices. "They must attend to their families, community, household tasks, daily maintenance, career, education, spiritual and intellectual development, as well as the bombardment of everyone else's needs and expectations. They feel a responsibility to everything and everyone". Bell (1990) aptly summarizes the pressures on high-achieving women:
Despite two decades of feminist activism and change and the explosion of women into many professions that previously excluded them, women continue to receive mixed messages about achievement. And now the messages have an overlay of "having it all" - being a superwoman.(p. 87)
Maintain high standards for yourself but don't impose them on others - they will run the other way fast! Children, especially teenagers, are often very good at recognizing our attempts to get others to conform to our standards. Listen to them and be prepared to be flexible; eventually they will reveal their own passions and their own inner strengths.
Procrastination is a problem which can take on gigantic proportions. The procrastination involved in writing this paper on Perfectionism reached an all time high! Finding out how others manage procrastination may help. Setting priorities may help to avoid overload. You will probably need to devise strategies which work for you. Learning to accept that procrastination is a necessary and often painful part of the creative process, allowing ideas to incubate and taking that first step knowing that eventually the ideas will flow can build confidence.
Adderholt-Elliot (1987) has some light hearted advice:
.. you may want to get in touch with the Procrastinators Club of America. The club was founded in 1956 "to promote the fine art of procrastination to non-procrastinators, to make known the benefits of putting things off until later, to honour people who have performed exceptional acts of procrastination, and to have fun."... Meetings are irregular and late. Request a copy of their Last Month's Newsletter, but don't hold your breath waiting for it. (p.61)
Procrastination may be seen by some as the inability to take risks (Adderholt-Elliot,1987, 1989; Heacox,1991) . However Roeper (1991) explains that risk taking may be more difficult for the gifted person who can see what is at stake:
This applies to physical daring as well as the risk taking of disagreeing with the majority on issues of justice ... they may understand the need for risk taking more deeply and end up involved in the more dangerous action, possibly with greater anxiety and only after more careful investigation. As a rule, it will take the gifted longer to decide to dive into the pool, but they will be less likely to hit their heads on the bottom.(p. 97)
Silverman (1995 p.5) reminds us that perfectionists need those who have faith in their vision, faith in their ability to reach their goals. "Idealism should be fostered rather then stifled. We need idealists; we need those who set high standards for themselves and are willing to sweat and sacrifice in order to further their own evolution and the evolution of society." The following guidelines for parents are provided by Silverman (1995):
A Few Hints to Help You and Your Children Cope with Perfectionism Appreciate the trait. Don't be ashamed of being perfectionistic. Acknowledge your children's feelings of frustration. Share with them that you have often felt the same way and how you've dealt with your feelings.
Understand that it serves a useful purpose. Help your children understand the source of their feelings as positive traits in themselves. Ideals and high standards are good, even if it hurts when one can't always reach them.
Set priorities for yourself. Allow yourself to be perfectionistic in activities that really matter to you, rather than in everything all at once. Help your child recognize that no one can be perfect in everything, and that we all have to make painful choices in our lives about what to strive for, and where to settle for less than our best.
Maintain high standards for yourself, but don't impose them on others lest you become a tyrant. Help your child distinguish between perfectionistic attitudes toward self and others. It's fine to hold high standards for yourself but unfair to expect others to conform to your standards.
Keep striving even when your first attempts are unsuccessful. Encourage your children not to give up. Remind them that with practice they come closer and closer to their goals. It takes time and effort to achieve high standards.
Don't quit when the going gets rough. Only allow yourself to quit when you're a winner. Give your children examples of people who felt intensely frustrated in their efforts and overcame their obstacles through persistence.
Don't punish yourself for failing. Focus your energies on future successes. Try to be a model of self-acceptance, of willingness to look foolish and accept being wrong. Adopt a philosophy that there are no mistakes - only learning experiences. Help your child to process what is learned from each "failure." Successful adults do not expect instant successes. One father said to his children, "Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong' because it is only by doing it wrong that you can learn to do it right".
Hold onto your ideas and believe in your ability to reach them. Support your children in following their dreams.
Recognize that there are good parts and bad parts to perfectionism. We have choices about how we use it. We can let it paralyze us with fear of failure, or we can use it to mobilize us for unparalleled excellence. We can use this drive to help create a better world. There is pain in perfectionism. Fear of that pain can inhibit you from trying anything or you can deal with it courageously. Nothing is ever as bad as it appears. Teach your children that they can cope with this pain. It is a good pain. Help them realize that they are good problem-solvers, hard-workers, and emotionally strong. They may not be able to avoid the pain, but they can surmount it.
Perfectionism is an energy which can be used either positively or negatively. If it stems from within, it has the potential to lead to personal and professional fulfillment, unimaginable heights of achievement, moral and spiritual development. If it is diverted by self-doubt and lack of faith or if it is a response to external pressure, it can be agonizing and debilitating (Silverman, 1995, p. 3).
The ability to see how one might ideally perform, combined with emotional intensity leads many gifted individuals to set extremely high standards for themselves. Silverman (1995) reminds us that:
The gifted will continuously set unrealistic standards for themselves, will fight windmills and city hall, will persist when others have given up, will maintain their visions of what is possible even in the face of disaster. They will push themselves beyond all reasonable limits to achieve goals they feel are important ... It takes great personal courage to live in that gap between "what is" and "what ought to be" and to try to close it. The desire for self-perfection is painful and not everyone is willing to experience that pain.(p. 6)
We need to reassure the gifted that perfectionism is an integral part of their giftedness and that the "pain" is unavoidable in the pursuit of excellence. The gifted need reassurance of their ability to persist when the going gets tough and reassurance that they have enough inner strength to pursue higher levels of development and moral commitment.