One of the most discussed characteristics of gifted individuals is their perfectionistic behavior (Speirs Neumeister, 2004a; Siegle & Schuler, 2000; LoCicero & Ashby, 2000). Why is it important to address and understand perfectionism among gifted people? Research shows that gifted and talented individuals have a strong tendency towards perfectionism and can be either helpful, debilitating, or both. Failure is one of the primary concerns of gifted individuals. The fear of not being able to perform at their highest capacity can significantly affect their future performance. Various studies view perfectionism as positive or negative based on how it influences performance, motivation, and achievement. In this paper, the effects of perfectionistic traits to the performance of gifted individuals will be reviewed, particularly underachievement. The positive side of perfectionism will also be discussed and used as a guide in helping gifted individuals benefit from perfectionism.
What is perfectionism? Burns (1980) defined perfectionists as “those whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals” (p.34). In addition, other psychologists supported the negative conceptualization of perfectionism. Pacht (1984) defined perfectionists as having “set goals so unrealistically high that they cannot possibly succeed” (p.387) and that perfectionism is “a kind of psychopathology” (p.387). Hamachek (1978), on the other hand, proposed a dichotomous view of perfectionism as natural perfectionism and neurotic perfectionism. He stated that natural perfectionists could be “just as easily referred to as skilled artists or careful workers or masters of their craft” (p. 27), while neurotic perfectionists are those who are never satisfied with their performance. Furthermore, Flett and Hewitt (2002) defined perfectionism as “the striving for flawlessness, and extreme perfectionists are people who want to be perfect in all aspects of their lives.” (p.5).
Hewitt and Flett (1991a), identified three components of perfectionism. During the development of the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS; Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 2004), Flett and Hewitt (1991, 2004) described three sub-scales or types of perfectionism: (1) self-oriented perfectionists: follow strict standard, strongly motivated to attain perfection, avoid failure, engage in rigid self-evaluation; (2) other-oriented perfectionists: set unrealistic standards for significant others paired with a strict evaluation of other people’s performances; and (3) socially-prescribed perfectionists: experience pressure to be perfect by others, believe that they are being critically evaluated by others, and believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (Flett and Hewitt, 1991, 2004). Kilbert et al. (2005) on the other hand, describes self-oriented perfectionists as those individuals who use their accomplishments and efforts as their motivation to improve and enhance their work, while socially-prescribed perfectionists are more concerned about failure, embarrassment, shame and guilt (Kilbert et al., 2005, p 154).
Perfectionistic concerns is mostly maladaptive in nature — it can be both self-oriented and socially-prescribed (Flett & Hewitt, 2004). The study conducted by Frost and Henderson (1991) supports this theory when they found that individuals who are concerned over mistakes tend to exhibit anxiety, low confidence, a failure orientation, and strong reactions to both positive and negative responses from other people (Frost & Henderson, 1991). Perfectionistic strivings on the other hand, is considered adaptive in most situations — which are mostly self-oriented and other-oriented (Frost et al., 1993). Individuals who exhibit this type of perfectionistic behavior strive for excellence and improvement, and can be considered a healthy form of perfectionism. Although, studies also suggest that if an individual has high levels of perfectionistic strivings, said individual also tend to exhibit high levels of perfectionistic concerns (Flett & Hewitt, 2005; Hall, 2006; Stoeber, 2011).
Giftedness and Perfectionism
Silverman (2007) described perfectionism as “the most misunderstood aspect of the personality trait of the gifted”. This is due to the negative aspects associated with perfectionistic characteristics that are common and observable in most gifted individuals. Other researchers even associate perfectionism with psychopathologic tendencies and various types of psychological maladjustments such as depression, suicide, stress-related ailments, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, workaholism, chemical abuse, sexual compulsions and dysfunctions, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other disorders (Burns, 1980; Barrow & Moore, 1983; Pacht, 1984; Trophy & Rohrkemper, 1989). Should perfectionism be eliminated from gifted individuals to help them improve their functioning and enhance their performance? According to Webb (1995), 15—20% of gifted students may experience the negative effects of perfectionistic tendencies in their lifetimes, while Orange (1997) suggest that there may be as high as 89% of gifted students with negative perfectionistic tendencies. Other studies also support the high perfectionistic tendencies among gifted individuals ( e.g. Schuler, 1999).
The traditional view on perfectionists usually falls in the category of maladjustment, or persons unable to experience contentment and satisfaction regardless of the effort expended at a particular task. Furthermore, perfectionists are viewed as having high standards not just on themselves, but on others as well. Gifted individuals, based on research, are more susceptible to being impaired by perfectionism and at risk of dealing with unhealthy perfectionism (DeLisle, 1986; Dixon and Scheckel, 1996; Goldberg and Adderholdt-Elliot, 1999; Rimm, 1986, 1995; Sigel, 1987; Silverman, 1993; Whitmore, 1980). Researchers, such as Adderholdt-Elliot (1989) and Schuler (2000), associate perfectionism with procrastination and fear of failure, which is considered a negative characteristic and must be removed from gifted individuals to enhance their functioning. Silverman (1998b), on the other hand, shed some light on why gifted children are perfectionistic by providing six reasons:
“(1) Perfection is an abstract concept. It takes an abstract mind to grasp its meaning and to cherish a vision that does not exist in the concrete world. (2) Perfectionism is a function of asynchrony or uneven development. Gifted children set standards according to their mental age rather than their chronological age. (3) Many gifted children have older playmates and tend to set standards appropriate for their mature friends. (4) Young gifted children have enough forethought to enable them to be successful in their first attempts at mastering any skill. They have succeeded in the past, so they strive to be successful in the future, no matter how difficult the challenge. (5) The gifted crave challenge and stimulation, and tasks are too easy they will do whatever they can to complicate any task, including trying to accomplish it perfectly. (6) Perfectionism occurs as a distortion of the drive for self-perception, which is a positive evolutionary drive.”
Perfectionism, as defined in various literature, is driven by high achievement. Gifted individuals, to be particular, are highly motivated by reaching the highest level of excellence or the highest peak of their performance. However, the negative effects of perfectionism is said to cause underachievement in gifted individuals as well (Rimm, 2007). Gifted students who manifest perfectionistic tendencies, according to Whitmore (1980), are more vulnerable at delaying submission of work unless it is perfect. The study conducted by Orange (1997) using the Perfectionism Quiz involving 156 students who were in gifted and talented programs from different high schools, identified 6 of the 9 factors as possible dimensions of perfectionism among gifted individuals: need for organization; need for approval of others; obsessive-compulsive demands on self; indecision; anxiety and excessive worry; and procrastination. How does these perfectionism factors influence underachievement in gifted individuals? According to Rimm (2007), gifted individuals who are negatively affected by perfectionism manifest an undermining effect on their self-esteem and self-efficacy. When faced with difficult tasks or new challenges, gifted individuals either procrastinate for the fear of not performing and meeting high standards or avoid performing altogether because of their fear of failing. This can be described as an all-or-nothing approach that most gifted individuals manifest as an effect of perfectionistic behavior. Gifted individuals who have high levels of perfectionism are at most risk of self-criticism and viewing themselves as incompetent when presented with new, unfamiliar tasks as well as increased level of challenge or competition. Perfectionism significantly affects the motivation in gifted individuals. As for the type of perfectionism that underachieving gifted individuals manifest, their motivation and performance are influenced by perfectionistic concerns and mostly self-oriented and socially-prescribed. Based on the definition provided by Flett and Hewitt (2004), gifted individuals whose perfectionistic concerns are socially-prescribed exhibit high anxiety over other people’s expectation of their performance as well as how others are going to evaluate their performance. Socially-prescribed perfectionistic concerns in gifted individuals are usually influenced by their close social groups such as parents, families, peers, teachers and coaches. Self-oriented perfectionism, on the other hand, is an individual’s perception and evaluation of one’s performance and capabilities.
For gifted individuals, the reason for wanting perfection can be intrinsically and extrinsically motivated or both. Perfectionism can drive an individual to do better, be at their best, or do nothing at all. Is perfectionism really bad and must be removed from gifted individuals? How can we help gifted individuals take advantage of such trait? After all, perfectionistic behavior can be positive as well.
In her paper, Silverman (1997) discussed about the positive side of perfectionism based on several personality theories. Murray (1938), for instance, emphasized on a person’s strong need for achievement and overcoming challenges and accomplishing difficult tasks as healthy and an essential part of a person’s personality development. Adler (1973) also regarded perfectionism as an essential part of a person’s life by recognizing one’s personal power, increasing one’s abilities, and using it for the good of society. Maslow (1971) and Csikszentmihayli (1990) viewed perfectionism not as a neurosis but as a necessary process of realizing one’s full potential and perfecting one’s capabilities and talents to achieve self-actualization — the highest level of a person’s being. Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) (Dabrowski, 1964, 1972) viewed perfectionism as a person’s drive to progress from lower to higher—multilevel—development. Silverman (1997) also explored the different aspects of perfectionism according to the different levels of personality development. During Level 1 perfectionism, individuals manifest other-oriented perfectionism and striving only towards having everything one wants instead of becoming a better person. People at Level 2 manifests a true desire to improve the self. However, according to Silverman (1997) a person’s perfectionism at this level may “appear as preservations, obsessions, phobias, rigid control of self or others, and excessive anxiety about other people’s opinion of oneself”. At this level, individuals who manifest perfectionistic behaviors focus more and magnify their own imperfections while overlooking their strengths. Perfectionists at Level III dedicate and invest their time and energy to external pursuits that will allow them to realize their own capabilities. It is at this level when perfectionism becomes a factor that motivates a person to reach his/her highest potential. However, fear of failure is also high during Level III. The last two levels, Level IV and V are when perfectionism becomes a positive trait that “fuels the process of self-actualization” (Silverman, 1997). An individual now realizes his/her own potential, the purpose of one’s existence, and more in tune with one’s ideal self. Perfectionism no longer exists as well as doubts, fears, and inner conflicts. At this level, a person sees the good and perfection in everyone and everything. This is the highest level of development that a human being can ever reach. Based on the self-actualization theory, it is possible to reach but not as easy due to our daily life struggles, both internally and externally.
The application of humanistic approach to perfectionism provided a better understanding and meaning to perfectionistic behaviors, not just for gifted individuals, but for anyone manifesting perfectionism. Fear of failure, anxiety, self-doubt, maladaptive social comparison, all disrupt functioning and performance among gifted individuals, therefore, causing underachievement or the all-or-nothing attitude. To help gifted individuals overcome the negative effects of perfectionism, recognizing perfectionism as a process of personality development and being “the person one ought to be” is a good start. Instead of looking at perfectionism as a problem among gifted individuals, such trait must be presented as a self-discovery process that one can benefit from— an adaptive perfectionism. Parents, families, teachers, coaches, and counselors, or the significant individuals in a gifted person’s life play huge roles on how that person develops perfectionism that facilitates improvement in skills and talents, rather than inhibit them. From goal orientation, or meeting the highest standards, mastery orientation should be the focus of intervention programs for gifted individuals who exhibit perfectionistic behaviors. According to Matthew & Foster (2005), “individuals with a mastery orientation to learning tend to welcome and even thrive on challenges”. Said individuals are not scared of taking risks, making mistakes, facing problems, and accepting new challenges. They love to learn more, expand their knowledge, and improve their skills. They have a realistic view of setting goals, expectations, achievement, success, excellence and of their capabilities. Furthermore, Pyryt (2004) suggested some strategies to help gifted individuals cope effectively with perfectionistic tendencies: (1) don’t take it personally; (2) know when to quit; (3) match the time commitment to the value of tasks, set goals, and focus on improvement; and (4) enjoy the journey.
Giftedness, Perfectionism, and the Jesuit Values
When we channel aspects of perfectionism to something positive, according to Silverman (1999), “perfectionism becomes a catalyst for self-actualization and humanitarian ideals”. Knowing the multidimensional aspect of perfectionism will help us understand better the different sides and faces of perfectionism. Most importantly, the positive influence of perfectionism must be of greater focus. Perfectionism, when applied to good use and impactful situations, can benefit us and others. Adaptive perfectionists view our world, the things around us, the people that surround us, our connection to everything and anything within and outside our reach with the desire to see what is best and always trying to find the good in all of them. Aside from the humanistic approach to perfectionism based on humanistic perspectives, the jesuit values can also teach us a lot of things when it comes to taking advantage of perfectionistic behaviors.
When we are making decisions in terms of our actions, deeds, and goals, the Ignatian process teaches us to choose between two goods, the better good and the “more” good. In the eyes of a perfectionist, one only wants what’s good or even more. However, more does not mean going or doing more to the point of exhaustion. Magis, latin term for “more”, is the value of striving for the better, striving for excellence. This is one of the values that the jesuit philosophy can teach gifted individuals as well as any person whose performance can be affected by perfectionism. It is alright to strive for excellence but not to the extent of exhaustion.
The jesuit values can teach us a lot of things, not just as individuals but also in becoming good members of our society. As men and women for and with others, we embody the Ignatian Spirituality by serving others, especially those who are in most need of our provision and care. Positive perfectionistic characteristics can help us perform our duties toward others, particularly in pursuing justice in behalf of all persons. We desire what is deserved and best for everyone regardless of socioeconomic status, education background, ethnicity, age, capabilities, among others. In the pursuit of perfectionism, as men and women for and with others, we strive for justice and fairness. No one and nothing is left behind or disregarded. Again, we do not only want what is good, because we know we can do and give more. With this, the jesuit values also teach us who we are as a whole person — our hearts and minds as one. The desires of our minds are the desires of our hearts. We use our education, knowledge, and skills in pursuing the desires of our hearts. We use our God-given gifts to pursue the good, and more, in serving others. Lastly, since perfectionism, according to the humanistic perspective, is a trait that guides a person through the process of self-actualization where a person sees perfection in everything and anything; the Ignatian Spirituality also teaches us to search and find God’s presence everywhere, in anything, and in all creation. When one seeks God’s presence everywhere, one only finds what is good or best. It is not only gifted individuals who can benefit from the positive effects of perfectionistic traits. With proper guidance and understanding of the different sides of perfectionism we can make our world better.
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