Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Are gifted individuals really perfectionists?

One trait commonly associated with giftedness is perfectionism. Both gifted children and adults are often seen as high achievers who pursue excellence and suffer from a sense of failure if they don't succeed. Articles linking giftedness and perfectionism, such as Silverman's, describe different forms of perfectionistic behavior, ranging from healthy to "neurotic," and imply that it is more prevalent among the gifted.

But are gifted people really perfectionists?

Are they really more likely to be perfectionistic than anyone else?

And are we confusing perfectionism with a healthy drive to excel?

I raise these questions because I have not seen an overabundance of perfectionism in my psychotherapy practice with gifted adolescents and adults. Contrary to the (mostly anecdotal) reports in the literature, my clinical experience has suggested otherwise: gifted people, like everyone else, are unique, and in this case, have not necessarily cornered the market on perfectionism. And some research (see below) has also challenged this impression of widespread perfectionism among the gifted. Here are some observations:

1. Gifted individuals often strive for excellence, but their drive is internally motivated.

Gifted children and adults crave meaningful, engaging and stimulating activities that challenge them. Praise from others for their accomplishments or achieving specified goals may bring momentary good feelings, but internal satisfaction is what matters most. Winning an award, nailing an audition, or acing an exam is exciting, but gifted people are quick to appreciate that this form of recognition is temporary and situational. If anything, external demands and goals are often seen as a nuisance and a barrier to fulfilling their true passion.

2. Anyone can be a perfectionist

Perfectionism is not reserved just for the gifted; anyone can be a perfectionist, regardless of intellectual abilities. In fact, those who struggle academically may judge themselves more harshly and suffer from low self-esteem. Regardless of innate abilities, people who doubt themselves, base their self-worth on validation from others, and believe they must conform to external standards are most likely to exhibit perfectionistic traits. These are the people who feel anxious, worry about what others think of them, panic before tests, and exaggerate the importance of success and failure. They may despair because of a slightly less than perfect grade, labor for hours over homework and projects, and obsessively check for mistakes. And it extends well beyond academics and work. We have all seen perfectionists who cannot rest until every dish is washed, every article of clothing is in place, and whose home is spotless.

In fact, many of the traits associated with perfectionism are inconsistent with those commonly seen among gifted people. In order to alleviate anxiety, perfectionists tend to be conforming, detail-oriented, conscientious, and seek external approval. This is counter to how most gifted individuals approach their world. Intrinsically motivated and non-conforming, they often question rules (sometimes even making their own rules), think creatively, and refuse to be defined by external norms.

And many gifted individuals do not reach their potential...and don't even try. Perfection is not their concern. Frequently labeled as underachievers, they take short-cuts, develop strategies for exerting the least amount of effort possible, and coast through school or work. Their inertia often goes undetected by teachers or employers since they usually meet their goals. Sometimes they miscalculate, though, and end up failing the exam, missing that important interview or deadline, or handing in an incomplete project, and then have to suffer the consequences.

3. Perfectionism is not more common among gifted people

Perfectionism is not necessarily more prevalent among gifted individuals than among anyone else, although may be more common among high achievers and among women, who have been rewarded for their "good behavior" since childhood. Research by Stornelli and colleagues and by Parker, for example, failed to identify any significant difference between gifted and non-gifted children on measures of perfectionism. Parker concluded that:

"...the frequent anecdotal reports of greater perfectionism among the gifted may be a product of differential labeling patterns of similar behaviors..."

Why have there been so many accounts of perfectionism among gifted people? Perhaps intensity and a drive for excellence were confused with the disabling rigid perfectionism that actually interferes with performance. Perhaps underachieving gifted students were not identified (an unfortunately common occurrence), and therefore not included in these studies. Perhaps the criteria for identifying gifted students in some studies were too broadly defined and included bright high achieving students in addition to those who were clearly gifted. Whatever the reasons, the assumption that gifted people are necessarily perfectionistic, and possess this trait to a greater extent than the rest of the population, certainly warrants further research.

4. Perfectionism is a means of managing and containing anxiety

Perfectionists are plagued by fear, and their attempts to be perfect and please others is a defense against this underlying anxiety and insecurity. They are always looking over their shoulder, wary that any flaw or imperfection will be discovered. They overextend themselves, preparing well beyond what is necessary to minimize any possibility of failure. Terrified of disapproval, they conform to whatever is expected, and suppress their own needs or desires. Like any maladaptive coping behavior, it backfires, and the original intention (to suppress anxiety and restore a sense of calm) is never achieved.

5.  Perfectionism is debilitating and distressing 

Perfectionism is maladaptive and often linked to more serious emotional disturbance. Whether a defense against anxiety, a means of seeking approval, or an attempt to boost low self-esteem, it is problematic. Distinctions between "healthy and neurotic" perfectionism create confusion and downplay the seriousness of the behavior. As Greenspon notes:

"...a body of literature asserts that some perfectionism is healthy, even though a critical review of this literature finds no factual or theoretical basis for such a claim. The commonly asserted belief in a dichotomy between healthy and dysfunctional perfectionism is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of perfectionism, in part confusing the concept with striving for excellence..."

When self-worth hinges on grades and performance, when less than perfection is viewed as failure, perfectionism becomes a ball and chain. Many perfectionists actually perform worse than expected because their anxiety interferes with their performance, they procrastinate until the last minute, or they give up completely if they fail to meet their own high standards. At its worst, perfectionism can trigger low self-esteem and additional unintended anxiety and has been linked to serious mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, and even suicide.

Final thoughts...

Let's think twice before assuming that gifted people are any more likely to be perfectionists than anyone else. A healthy desire to achieve excellence and "perfect" a meaningful task should not be confused with true perfectionism. Gifted people may hold high standards for themselves and strive to excel, but this may come from a realistic assessment of their actual potential. They realize what they can accomplish if they put in the effort. And if they are fortunate, anxiety and perfectionism will not block their path.

Perfectionism may seem like a behavior that is impossible to eliminate. A future blog post will address some tips for reducing perfectionistic behaviors. But If you or a loved one struggle with perfectionism, consider counseling with a licensed mental health professional, who can address the behaviors, thoughts, and anxiety associated with it, and encourage new coping strategies.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Anxiety.
To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:


  1. Interesting - I always thought that perfectionism was a common trait for gifted people. I never looked at it this way. I guess it's good to know that there are researchers out there doing studies that actually compared the differences.

    1. Thanks. It is a different perspective. But I found it odd that so many gifted people I have worked with in my practice, and whom I know in my life are NOT perfectionistic. While there are obviously many gifted people who are, I felt that the assumption that it was such a widespread trait needed to be addressed. Thanks for your comments.

  2. "Winning an award, nailing an audition, or acing an exam is exciting, but gifted people are quick to appreciate that this form of recognition is temporary and situational." <--- I'm so glad you brought this up! I have a son who has won a few quite significant awards and yet, the awards almost mean nothing to him--the attention, the compliments all are appreciated but not the reaction I would have expected. It is definitely the intrinsic motivation that drives them and the goals they set for themselves do matter most. This is really validating for me.

    Thank you for this truly insightful and thought-provoking post, Gail. It does make me reconsider many things I once believed.

    1. Me too! Mine has won a bunch of art awards and science fairs and he doesn't care. Once he's finished it, he's moved on. He doesn't care what comes of it, he's on to the next big thing.

      Great post, Gail! I've thought of this often myself. My husband and I cut corners and slacked all through school. Did well academically but we certainly weren't perfectionists across the board. With things I'm passionate about? I see it more there.

    2. Thanks so much, Celi and Cait. I also saw this with my kids and with most of their friends. Their passions and interests drove them; grades, awards, etc. were just necessary accomplishments but not all that meaningful. The children who struggled more in school often took more pride in awards and external recognition. They just needed it more. Gifted children seem to know when the award is deserved, when they truly worked hard to accomplish it or not, and when it seems like fluff. Sort of like the soccer trophies that the whole team gets at the end of every season regardless of whether they win or not - just silly, really.

      Thanks for both of your comments!

  3. This is a different take on this topic, Gail. If I had more time, I'd make a more thought-out comment but I will definitely reflect on what you're saying here. In my experience, I've found many of my gifted clients are perfectionists.

    I've seen two types of perfectionism. One type, the "intrinsic type," is the "healthy" version. The striving for beauty, balance, harmony, justice and precision. (one way to summarize it) Then the "extrinsic" type is the unhealthy version that comes with the need for approval or the debilitating fear of failure. I find gifted people can develop this type when there's too much emphasis on achievement, grades and being smart. Anyway, that's the quick version of my take on the topic. As you know there's so much more one could say. It's a great topic and I appreciate your tackling it, with clarity and insight.

    1. Paula, Thank you for your always helpful and insightful comments. I agree that it is a complicated issue. I have also seen a lot of striving for excellence among gifted people, along with a fair share of unhealthy perfectionism. And I have seen a lot of perfectionism among people who are not gifted, especially women (!), who also push themselves too hard to achieve, and who feel pressure from others to conform.

      I suspect that there are a fair number of gifted people who struggle with perfectionism, but plenty who don't - those who underachieve, or have come to terms with a healthy balance. And there are plenty of those who are not gifted who struglle with it. I guess the bottom line is sorting out how to help anyone who is debilitated by this terrible pressure to conform and who experiences so much anxiety.

      Thanks again.

  4. Thank-you for this. I think what really complicates the work that I do with gifted individuals is in the "making (and then living up to) their own rules". When perfectionism is in the name of pursuing an external standard (grades etc.) there are some strategies to work with. The task of understanding and negotiating complex internal measurement systems that appear unrelated to achievement...not so simple. Perhaps this is where TPD meets perfectionism.

    1. Thanks for your comments. You raise an important point. The internal standards gifted people often set for themselves can be tough to manage. A very complicated issue.


  5. I do not perceive myself as a perfectionist in most situations, but there is one thing that continuously gnaws at me. I have taken the WAIS and scored within the 99th percentile in all but the VCI. After trying to find more information about gifted individuals, I am reminded of kids half my age getting SAT scores in the 99th percentile for things like CTY. If I cannot even do that now, does that mean that the percentiles for the WAIS were lies? This sounds rather stupid to even mine own self as a formidable question, but it really irks me because I would expect that all highly, exceptionally, etc. gifted kids would receive such scores based on how Hoagies gives them such great validity.

    1. Anonymous, The WAIS is an IQ test. The SATs are a measure of learned information. They do not necessary correlate.