“The pursuit of excellence is not a skill, it is an attitude.”
– Manoj Chandra Handa
Perfectionism has often been misunderstood as a good quality to possess. It is not. What is good is the pursuit of excellence which is something quite different. Delisle and Galbraith (2002) make a clear distinction between the two concepts.
Perfectionism means that you can never “fail”, you always need approval, and if you come in second, you are a loser!
The pursuit of excellence means taking risks, trying new things, growing, changing – and sometimes not succeeding.
Jim Delisle and Judy Galbraith in their book, “When gifted kids don’t have all the answers”, point out that perfectionism can take a heavy toll on a student’s self-esteem, relationships, creativity, health, and capacity to enjoy life. As perfectionism is not possible, and yet that is what some students want—and that they won’t be satisfied with anything less—it is a recipe for disappointment.
Delisle and Galbraith (2002) affirm that gifted people of all ages are especially prone to perfectionism. This may be rooted in the awareness of producing the best quality and nothing else. Once they see how something “ought to be done” (ought to sound, ought to look), they may naturally want to do it that way. And they may overwhelm themselves (and others) in the process. This is why gifted students need support to persist despite their constant awareness of “failure”.
Many of problems students have with high expectations are reinforced by the environment, particularly if they have had a string of early successes. Ruth Duskin Fieldman, a former “Quiz Kid” (in Delisle & Galbraith, 2002, p. 65) speaks of intelligence as a potential trap: When profoundly gifted children are “…accustomed to easy success and… are praised for work requiring modest effort [they] may not develop discrimination or learn to meet a challenge. When these children grow up, they seek applause constantly without knowing how to get it. Children held to impossibly high standards and deprived of praise may get caught in a cycle of hopeless, misdirected perfectionism, trying to please parents, teachers or bosses who can never be satisfied.”
There is a healthy alternative to perfectionism. Delisle and Galbraith (2002) call it “pursuit of excellence”. Some of the positive aspects of the pursuit of excellence are perseverance, higher standards, extraordinary effort and maximum use of gifts to transform them into talents.
Greenspon (2002) believes that the heart of unhealthy perfectionism is fear, an inordinate fear that, unless one is perfect, one is worthless. To be gifted, for many students, is to be never less than perfect.
The big question is: How can these students become ‘pursuers of excellence’?
Clark (2013) suggests that the first step towards intervening in the problems of unhealthy perfectionism is to acknowledge and clearly affirm what appears to be occurring. For example, the response to a frustrated attempt to complete a project perfectly that is still beyond the skill of the student would be simply, “You really would like that to be finished perfectly, wouldn’t you?” or “It just isn’t quite the way you want it yet, is it?” From statements such as these, if open communication exists with the student, a discussion of this inner need usually will follow.
Buffington (1987) points out that not only the unhealthy perfectionist is less productive, but also that unhealthy perfectionism contributes to loneliness, relationship problems, limited self-acceptance and moodiness. He suggests that students can be taught to deal with their perfectionism problem through opportunities to:
- learn how to mentally filter thoughts, focusing on their successes instead of their mistakes
- reevaluate their current standards by comparing them to set criteria used by others
- celebrate their successes
- learn from their mistakes
- practise making mistakes, noticing their feelings and learning how to cope with them
- list the advantages and disadvantages of being a perfectionist
- look closely at their current level of self-acceptance, and
- surround themselves with positive situations and people.
Siegel and Schuler (2000) suggest that the gifted students who show signs of unhealthy perfectionism can be helped by parents, teachers, and counsellors who guide them to focus on present behaviour, plan realistic goals, make reasonable commitments, and accept the consequences of their actions:
Parents can help by:
- modelling priority setting
- acceptance of mistakes, and
- teaching strategies for relaxation and self-evaluation (Siegel & Schuler, 2000).
Teachers can help by:
- setting high, but realistic expectations
- refraining from public criticism
- showing that their caring is not based on the student’s performance
- focusing on the student’s strengths and successes
- providing appropriately challenging curriculum
- orchestrating success experiences for those students who need them
- encouraging students to read biographies of famous people who took risks or who stumbled and fumbled their way into history
- planning incentives and rewards that do not require perfection
- helping students cope with competition by explaining that being best is not as important as doing their best
- encouraging individual responsibility and decision making by letting the students manage some of the learning activities
- scheduling teacher-student conferences to communicate their interest in them as individuals; and complimenting them on their special qualities, talents or abilities
- communicating their pride in students’ accomplishments by posting students’ projects and activities in their classrooms
- providing positive feedback on their performance, and suggesting strategies for future improvement
- teaching more realistic self-evaluation skills, and
- always believing in, and persisting with, their students.
Schools can help by:
- fostering collaboration with parents in meeting student needs
- providing more flexibility in educational services, and
- implementing a counselling program with attention to issues such as stress management, self-harm prevention, perfectionism reduction, social skills, self-esteem enhancement, enabling skills, assertiveness and learning decision-making skills.
A school environment—where risk taking is valued, trust is developed, and mistakes are seen as pathways to assist learning—has the capacity to relieve students of the need to be perfect in unhealthy ways. Acknowledging the success of gifted learners is quite different from expecting or demanding constant successes.
Adderholdt, M. & Goldberg, J. (1999). Perfectionism – What’s good about being too good? Minneapolis: Free Spirit publishing.
Buffington, P. (1987). Perfection: Impossible Dream? Sky, 16(8), 31-34.
Clark, B. (2013). Growing up gifted. Ohio: Pearson Education.
Delisle, J. & Galbraith, J. (2002). When gifted kids don’t have all the answers. Minneapolis: Free Spirit publishing.
Greenspon, T. S. (2002). Freeing our families from perfectionism. Minneapolis: Free Spirit publishing.
Heacox, D. (1991). Up from underachievement. Minneapolis: Free Spirit publishing.
Siegle, D. & Schuler, P. A. (2000). Perfectionism: Differences in Gifted Middle School Students. Roeper Review, 23(1), 39-44.