Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D.
Perfectionism is a topic that comes up often in our competitive, winner-take-all culture. It is a favorite topic among parents and teachers of gifted kids, although no evidence exists that gifted kids are more likely than others to be perfectionistic. There is also no evidence that perfectionism is ever a good thing, though some people have asserted that it can be. As a recovering perfectionist myself, and as a psychotherapist with 40 years of experience working with, reading the research on, and writing about perfectionistic people, I believe it is important to understand what perfectionism actually is, so we can be in a better position to be helpful.
The Leading And Trailing Edges Of Perfectionism
An airplane wing necessarily has both a leading and a trailing edge. Perfectionism is similarly constructed. In psychological terms, the leading edge is all of the conscientious effort, energy, singleness of purpose, and seriousness of intent that a perfectionistic person invests in a particular goal. By itself, this leading edge undergirds the pursuit of excellence. Failures during this pursuit may be disappointing, indeed, but the urge for self-improvement induces learning from mistakes and trying again. For perfectionistic people, though, mistakes can be devastating. Perfectionism’s trailing edge, confirmed in every investigation of its personality characteristics, is fear of failure and anxiety about mistakes. Mistakes have a particular meaning for perfectionistic people, whose emotional conviction, established by experience interpreting the responses of others, is that a mistake is a sign of personal defectiveness. Errors are felt to make one less acceptable as a person. So, psychologically, perfectionism is a self esteem issue and has anxiety, and shame, at its emotional foundation.
Take It Seriously
It is important not to attribute the positive characteristics of perfectionistic people — their leading edge qualities — to a kind of positive perfectionism. Perfectionistic kids, and adults, need a chance to be liberated from anxieties about how well they are doing, so they can use their considerable talents to pursue excellence in greater peace. Research makes it clear that the anxieties that underlie perfectionism can actually inhibit success. Perfectionism is also a common companion of depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, so when perfectionism is observed, it’s important to pay attention to it.
Build An Environment of Acceptance
Fortunately, perfectionism has an antidote. I describe this in several professional articles, and you can also learn more about it in my books: Moving Past Perfect, for parents and teachers, and What To Do When “Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough, for middle schoolers. Since perfectionistic people feel less acceptable, start consciously building an environment of acceptance. Make sure your child (or partner) knows you love them for who they are, rather than for what they can do. Ask if it seems like you are disappointed when they don’t do well. Practice encouragement: say, often, what you appreciate about them as people. Perfectionism is a burden, but not a character flaw; moving past it is both desirable and possible!
Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D., is an author, a recently-retired psychologist and marriage and family therapist, and a faculty member at the Minnesota Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Tom and his wife Barbara are former co-presidents of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented. This article first appeared in the NAGC NewsSource newsletter, April 4, 2018.