Perfectionism and the Gifted

February 19, 2013

By Kate Williams

Perfectionism is a quality that I struggle with first hand. Even as an adult, I find myself obsessing over errors in my weekend softball games and silently competing with the runner on the next treadmill at the gym. As a child, I would spend countless hours tearing out pages of sketchbooks and notebooks because there was a misspelled word, a fragmented sentence or even a smudge from my left-handed cursive. A mistake meant that the entire project had to be redone, because if everything didn’t line up perfectly, including my penmanship, it wasn’t worth turning in. Projects and deadlines became daunting, because how could the perfect drawing be executed in just one weekend? After spending time with gifted adolescents throughout the summer, I realized that this was a common trait in gifted students and that I was not alone. I have found ways to focus this perfectionism into more constructive goals as I’ve gotten older, but I still see the importance (especially with gifted children) of addressing the ever “strangling” concept of failure.

Perfectionism often points to “giftedness” because perfection in itself is an abstract idea. Looking for perfection is the thought of pursuing what is possible yet is not concrete in reality. Striving for something better, or reaching your full potential, is not a bad characteristic. However, it can take an emotional turn when you do not create balance in your life. “As with all dimensions of physical, cognitive and emotional well-being, the objective for children who have perfectionistic tendencies should be to find a healthy balance in which there is enough growth, but without undue and debilitating stress” (Matthews, Dona J., and Joanne F. Foster. 2005). Many times this overwhelming stress is an internal conflict that perfectionists impose upon themselves. However, extracurricular activities along with the daunting deadline can have the result of students losing initiative and procrastinating until the last minute. It’s rewarding to pursue excellence; it’s exhausting to disillusion yourself into thinking you’re incapable of completing the task at hand.

Now, as I reflect back on past personal experience, I see how making mistakes can be used as a learning tool. Open communication with students and consistent support is a great start to soothe the frustrations perfectionist behavior inflicts. It can be helpful to address the importance of rewording failures as “learning experiences”, and have faith in the perfectionist to reach his or her overall goals. Not once did I observe what I learned from scoring a 95% on a test. Learning should have been my priority as a perfectionist student, not the grade. This balance of errors and achievements is important for daily life. Without this willingness to take risks and face failure, there would be no innovation or modern day science.

When an assistant asked Thomas Edison, “Well, Mr. Edison, how do you feel about having 1,500 failures to your credit?” Edison replied, “No, they weren’t failures. We now know 1,500 light bulb filaments that don’t work!”


Matthews, Dona J., and Joanne F. Foster. Being Smart about Gifted Children: A Guidebook for Parents and Educators. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential, 2005. Print.

Silverman, Linda Kreger, and Leland Baska. Counseling the Gifted and Talented. Denver, CO: Love Pub., 1993. Print.

How have you or your kids worked through the challenges that come with perfectionism? Please share in the comment section below.

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