As many of you know, WATG’s annual conference was held recently. For many of the board members, amidst the planning, preparation, and implementation of the conference, doubts emerged - doubts regarding the effectiveness of the platform we chose, doubts about delivering timely content in a virtual format, and doubts about the effectiveness of a completely digital conference. These doubts could have stemmed from insecurities regarding the newness of the conference format, or they could simply reflect general social stress during a pandemic. In a world that has so often been disappointed and stressed in the last year, our Board hoped to produce a virtual conference that would run smoothly and be highly meaningful for our constituency.
Ironically, despite waiting to hear negative feedback about various conference or delivery details throughout the week, none came. Even when participants were given the opportunity to evaluate their experience, our worries were unfounded. Those worries seemed to be figments of our own imaginations and thankfully, not manifest in participants’ experiences.
This led me to think about the role of perfectionism in our world, and how gifted students (and adults) experience it. Gifted students today are often plagued by those same frets and worries that our WATG board experienced this last week. However, the fears students encounter are more pervasive, and they permeate everyday tasks, from academics to personal life. Perfectionism can be immobilizing for gifted youth as they become entrenched in vicious mind games with themselves. Oftentimes, perfectionism is largely self-imposed, based on internalized fears of external factors. For some, the thought of disappointing someone, or letting others down is ever present. When it comes to executing daily tasks then, perfectionists get caught up in the details. If there are doubts about the potential quality of the work, perfectionists struggle to get motivated to begin, already anticipating the eventual disappointment of not living up to personal or perceived standards. Whether real or imagined, these standards become controlling. Perfectionists cannot help but fret about the details and work they are completing, rendering them unable to finish work or unable to hand it in until they feel satisfied with the end result. If that satisfaction never comes, then the work, regardless of the quality seen by others, will be a failure in the eyes of the gifted child.
Much of the drive for perfectionism can be an attempt at controlling a situation. This is especially dire for gifted students in the U.S.right now. In retrospect, our WATG board’s worries about the conference were limited to the weeks surrounding the conference; many of us were able to move on and shake off our nerves following the completion of the conference. However, for gifted kids struggling to maintain a semblance of control in a world that is decidedly out of control, it is not as easy to just “move on” or “let go.” Attempting to control life situations is ongoing.
As parents, educators, and mentors of gifted children, we need to be aware of this vise-grip that perfectionism can have on some of our kids. It is not their fault for striving for perfection. It is not them being difficult. For many of them, it’s part of their personality. In the words of my daughter who has been a perfectionist for decades, “If I could care less, I would. I would love to be confident in the final product, to see what others see in my writing or work. Sometimes it physically pains me to submit materials when I feel I could have done better. I get stuck in a cycle of if I think I can do better, why don’t I? -- and it starts all over again.”
In an effort to better present my thoughts about perfectionism, I looked up the definition of the word perfectionism. Besides the typical definition in Oxford Languages “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection,” an interesting tidbit came up with the definition. There was an N-Gram that demonstrated the use of the word perfectionism over time. Interestingly, there was a blip in the early 1600’s, the 1840’s, and then a rise that has not subsided since the 1940’s. As a matter of fact, one can see the exponential growth in the use of the word perfectionism in the last two decades. Clearly the English word “perfectionism” is being used more and more in writing, perhaps in part to address the issue that is plaguing our gifted children. You are not alone if you are experiencing this in your family or classroom!
We are not going to solve this in this writing. But we have to ask some questions and keep working on the answers. What’s the link between giftedness and perfectionism? What are the factors in our world that are driving some of our gifted kids (to drive themselves) to the limit at their own expense? What can we do to mitigate those factors? How do we infuse the idea of perfectionism into the lessons of a “growth mindset”? If this is something that you would like to continue having a conversion about, please let us know. Perhaps we could arrange for a Facebook Live event or a webinar on the topic. WATG is here to help support our gifted kids. Let us know how we can help!
Suggested resources- If you are interested in learning more about the use of the word “perfectionism”, here is a link to the graph provided:
by Cathy Schmit, WATG Board President