Perfectionism at it’s very core is not without controversy. Some researchers argue that perfectionism is a multidimensional construct composed of two hierarchical structure including normal (adaptive or healthy) perfectionism and neurotic (maladaptive or unhealthy) perfectionism, or a continuum between the two (Rice, Leever, Christopher, & Porter, 2006).
Forms of perfectionism
Healthy perfectionism is defined as perfection which empowers the perfectionist in the pursuit of excellence. Adaptive perfectionists manipulate the desire for perfection towards a healthy drive towards great achievement (Christopher & Shewmaker, 2010). Perfectionists set high goals to challenge themselves, and find pleasure in the pursuit of excellence.
The other form of perfectionism, neurotic perfectionism, results when perfectionists “strain compulsively and unremittingly towards impossible goals and measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment” (Burns, 1980 in Christopher & Shewmaker, 2010, p 3). The traits of neurotic perfectionism can result in a variety of negative effects and physiological disorders including: depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, alcoholism, erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome, dysmorphophobia, ulcerative colitis, and suicide (Orange, 1997). In this hierarchical view, perfectionists are distinguished due to the high standards of performance they require, and adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists are differentiated by “the discrepancy they perceive between their standards and actual performance” (Stoltz & Ashby, 2007, p. 1).
Nine dimensions of perfectionism
Placement along the perfectionism continuum can be measured by considering the following nine possible dimensions: the need for order and organization, the need for approval of others, the obsessive-compulsive demands on self, the tendency towards anxiety and excessive worry, the inability to be decisive, the high expectations of others (other-oriented perfectionism), the hurried or driven approach to tasks, the procrastination of tasks, and low interpersonal confidence (Orange, 1997).
These factors contribute to other-oriented perfectionism (the need for high expectations of others such that the perfectionist can meet his own standard), self-oriented perfectionism (the obsessive-compulsive standards imposed on self), or socially-prescribed perfectionism (the perceived perfectionist expectations of significant others in one’s life) (Christopher & Shewmaker, 2010).
Contrasting view of perfectionism
The other predominate view of perfectionism does not support an adaptive or healthy form of perfectionism. Thomas Greenspon defines perfectionism in a systems thinking approach as “a desire for perfection, a fear of imperfection, the equating of error to personal defectiveness, and the emotional conviction that perfection is the route to personal acceptability” (Greenspon, 2008, p. 3.) Because there are many people who devote excessive time to improving skill or ability even to the point of being obsessive, many people who set unrealistic goals for themselves and are disappointed when they are not met, and are not perfectionists. As such, this definition limits the effects of perfectionism to only negative ones as it is not about setting personal standards or attempting to achieve excellence – it is simply the unrelenting desire to be perfect, the fear of being imperfect and its association to self-worth as an individual (Ramsey & Ramsey, 2002). Adaptive perfectionism, in this viewpoint, does not exist. The capacity to manipulate the desire for perfection to achieve success is not inherent to perfectionism; it is instead composed of separate traits: motivation, continuity, and adaptability. Therefore, what is termed healthy perfectionism is simply perfectionists who are “successful despite, not because of, their perfectionism” (Greenspon, 2008, p. 5) .
Social impact of perfectionism on high ability and gifted students
Rice, Leever, Christopher and Porter (2006) discuss the links between perfectionism, stress and social disconnection among honors students with their short-term study: “Perfectionism, stress, and social (dis)connection: A short-term study of hopelessness, depression, and academic adjustment among honors students.” They determined that adaptive perfectionists are better able to manage stress and interpersonal skills, which resulted in higher academic achievement and overall optimism. Maladaptive perfectionism was highly associated with psychological problems.
This study involved two successive cohorts of honors students living in designated honors residence facilities that participated at the beginning of the year and again at the end. They were not compensated in any way. These results appear to be less biased as participation was voluntary, rather than for a specific compensation. These students were all high ability and post-secondary students.
While the implications of this study are important, they cannot be compared to elementary aged students who are more likely not to be living in exclusive residences for high ability students. Beyond that, comparisons between university life and elementary school life are so contrasting that there may be little in the way of similarities. Therefore, the implication that adaptive perfectionists are better able to manage stress and interpersonal skills as compared to maladaptive perfectionists may or may not be valid among an elementary sample. This study does not provide enough information to make this determination.
Guignard, Jacquet, & Lubart (2012) use self reported measues to study 132 grade 5 children to determine if gifted students report higher levels of anxiety associated with perfectionism in their article “Perfectionism and anxiety: A paradox in intellectual giftedness?” The results demonstrated that perfectionism was reported at the same level between the control group (6th graders of average ability) and the sample. However, anxiety was reported higher among gifted students than non-gifted students, regardless of perfectionism, suggesting a connection between giftedness and increased anxiety, rather than demonstrating a connection between anxiety and perfectionism.
This study is more relevant in age, but all the participants are in France. This regional difference in approaches to education may not reflect accurately upon a Canadian sample. There is significant distance in age between the control sample and the two groups of gifted students in the sample which may indicate a change in maturity may affect the prevalence of perfectionism.
Pruett’s (2004) study also involved grade 5 perfectionist gifted participants in a self-reported survey. The aim of this study was determine if the difficulties associated with perfectionism at this age group were self-oriented, other-oriented, or socially-prescribed. This study noted that perfectionist trends were common among most of the grade 5 sample, which is inconsistent with the previous research by Guignard, Jacquet, & Lubart (2012) which highlights the prevalence of perfectionism among gifted students is not higher than among nonperfectionists. This claim of equality of perfectionism among gifted and average students is also supported by Greenspon’s (2008) research. The study by Pruett (2004) also concluded that at this age level the primary reported concern was how parents (others) would perceive them. Despite this fact group discussion later revealed the actual concern shifted to how their peers (also other) perceived them. This indicates the increasing awareness of peer pressure may play a role in the stress regarding imperfection for young perfectionists.
This article was limited by the omission of the demographic of the sample beyond ‘a rural setting’. This omission makes it difficult to determine how this sample would reflect upon a potential class. However, it does concur with the articles highlighting the need for students to understand that perfection is “not always achievable, necessary, or desirable” (Pruett, 2004, p. 56).
Christopher and Shewmaker (2010) discuss the relationship of socially prescibed perfectionism (perfectionism externally derrived rather than internally or self-preseribed perfectionism) to high ability and gifted students. Their 2-week study was comprised of participants in a summer enrichment program at a small, private university in rural Texas. Their participants ranged in age from 7 to 14 years old, and had been either previously identifited as gifted through their school’s program, or were tested for high ability pior to entering the summer program. The students were administered three instruments in a group setting acrorrding to guidelines in their respective administration manuals: the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI), Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale (RSMAS) and the Child and Adolescent Perfectionism Scale (CAPS).
Descriptive results were gathered that supported a positive correlation between depression and socially prescribed perfectionism, a positive correlation between the effects of depression and socially prescribed perfectionism, and a negative correlation between anxiety and both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.
While the age range was appropriate, 76% of the participants were Caucasian and the study was held at a private Universtiy during a summer enrichment program suggesting partcipants were of high social-econiomic status. This is interesting in itself as Texas has a high hispanic population which was the next largest ethnic heritage at only 9% . This demographic may not accurately represent the culturally and economically diverse classrooms found in the average Texas school, let alone those within the lower mainland. There was also a lot of empahaisis placed on identifying the students, which as previously discussed is grey in both terms of perfectionism and giftedness, let alone students who are both.
However, the results of this study to support the tie between possible effects of peer-pressure on gifted perfectionist students. As this study is so narrowly defined, these results are worth considering as peer-pressure is found in the average classroom. How it manifests may be reflected differently, but the effects are in common with the study.
Systems thinking approach to perfectionism
Ramsey and Ramsey (2002) followed the systems thinking approach to determine how to address the negative effects of perfectionism on high ability students. Similar to Greenspon (2008) who uses the same approach in his clinical vignette, Ramsey and Ramsey (2002) note that “perfectionistic students – along with the rest of us – work to achieve consistency among their attitudes making up their world view, the observations they make of their own behaviour, and their self-assessments.” (Ramsey & Ramsey, 2002, p. 104) However, there is no study found in this article. It is a synthesis of articles along with the systems thinking approach in regards to concerns that perfectionism undermines lifelong learning, and what types of interventions may minimize these effects. (Ramsey & Ramsey, 2002) This article, similar to Greenspon (2008), suggest that perfectionism is not something that can be easily fixed, and that clinical interventions may be counterproductive as perfectionistic students may see themselves as flawed and thus try harder to achieve perfection. As perfectionism and its effects are often associated with gifted or talented students (Ramsey & Ramsey, 2002), this article serves to explain perfectionism as a demand for cognitive consistency and attempts made by teachers to promote the acceptance of imperfection may instead result in attempts to change their behavior to the desired norm, not alter their world view to the acceptable norm. Therefore, teachers need to support gifted students by creating situations where failure is desired or celebrated as steps towards learning, rather than promoting an end product. Alternately, lessons could be designed to remove attempts for control from the perfectionist, such as creating a story by alternating one word answers among members of a group. Attempts at controlling the story by the perfectionist would not be possible. However, this may be seen as too risky for some perfectionists and they may simply choose to avoid the activity due to this unpredictable nature.
This article seemed the most practical to me as it thoroughly explained a systems thinking approach (an approach that explains why perfectionism is bothersome rather than how it is bothersome) and provided practical examples (with limitations) to be used in a classroom setting with gifted students. It was by far the easiest to read because it had no heavy reliance on statistical analysis. However, this is in itself a limitation. There is no empirical data presented in this article. It is simply an alternate approach to analyzing empirical data in regards to how perfectionism affects gifted and talented students. The focus is on why it affects these students and what can be done to help alleviate negative effects.
Despite disagreements regarding perfectionism as a positive and negative construct, or simply a negative one with positive aspects belonging to other traits, all of the articles agreed there were negative effects of perfectionism, and that these effects could be quite severe if left unmediated. Prior to delving into this research, I was aware there were negative effects, but I was not prepared for the extent of them. Alcoholism and suicide were not problems I was aware stemmed from perfectionism, and have really impressed upon me the need to help and identify maladaptive perfectionists. All of the articles called for further research, and appeared limited by self-reported measures, which may be biased by the participant’s perceived perceptions of how they should score. This is especially important considering one of the dimensions of perfectionism may be the desire to be well liked, or receive the approval of others, therefore perfectionists may answer in this accordance rather than in actuality.
The articles did not show any significant differences among the prevalence of perfectionism among gifted student compared to students of average ability, nor the presence of more maladaptive perfectionists to adaptive perfectionists also compared to non-gifted students. This leads me to believe that there is further research that should be conducted on my part to determine how these effects vary, if at all, between gifted and non-gifted perfectionist students. Do they vary in intensity? Is there a larger population of maladaptive perfectionists among high ability perfectionists compared to maladaptive perfectionists among students of average or low ability?
The greatest implication that will affect my teaching was the discrepancy between promoting a healthy view of error and how this reinforce perfectionist behavior among gifted students. The idea behind discussing error is to promote an understanding and appreciation of unhealthy concern for perfection. However, by pointing out this flaw, perfectionist students may see it as a critique upon themselves and attempt to ‘do better’ from a perfectionist standpoint, rather than come to appreciate the importance of learning thorough error. Instead, the focus should be on the acceptance of error and the learning process over the importance of a finished product or grade. This mirrors previous information provided by courses that highlight the need for various forms of assessment to display the growth of learning rather than the summation of knowledge through tests and essays. Just as there is no one ‘right way’ to teach, there is no one ‘right way’ to assess. Good teaching involves presenting a variety of choices and forms of assessment. This can benefit high ability perfectionists by shifting the assessment from the final outcome to the process of learning. Learning logs, or reflections would be a great way to assess this.
However, this still provides room for a perfectionist to write down what he thinks he is expected to say. It is simply one step towards promoting authentic behaviors. Another may be including one word stories that are formed among groups of students. By limiting each student to a single word, it is impossible for a perfectionist to control or manipulate the story to fit his perception of the perfect story (Ramsey & Ramsey, 2002). A third possibility for promoting the acceptance of error is celebrating error and the knowledge learned from it. For example, if a student makes an incorrect prediction, the teacher may applaud this risk and the reasons behind it as well as how it may affect future predictions. Doing so downplays the results of the prediction and instead applauds the learning process as ‘right.’
All of these concepts are based on perfectionist students of high ability, yet may also be applicable to students of average or low ability. Without further research into the differences (if any) of how perfectionism manifests in average and low ability students, this cannot be commented on with certainty at this time.
With unintentional side effects including seating disorders, alcoholism and suicide, it is important to consider the effects teachers have on perfectionist students. This is dually important in the case of gifted students as neither their perfectionist tendencies, nor their high ability should be sacrificed when lesson planning. Teachers should incorporate high ability learners into their planning by giving them meaningful activities, not busy work. Additionally, assessments should not be solely based on a single method of demonstrating knowledge, or learning as this reinforces the connection between potential self-worth and products for maladaptive perfectionists.
References Christopher, M. M., & Shewmaker, J. (2010). The relationship of perfectionism to affective variables in gifted and highly able children. Gifted Child Today, 33 (3), 20-30.
Dunkley, D. M., Zuroff, D. C., & Blankstein, K. R. (2003). Self-Critical Perfectionism and daily affect: Dispositional and situational influences on stress and coping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (1), 234-252.
Greenspon, T. S. (2008). Making sense of error: A view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. American Journal of Psychotherapy , 62 (3), 263-282.
Guignard, J.-H., Jacquet, A.-Y., & Lubart, T. I. (2012). Perfectionism and anxiety: A paradox in intellectual Giftedness? PLos ONE , 7 (7), e41043.
Orange, C. (1997). Gifted students and perfectionism. Roeper Review , 20 (1), 39-41.
Parker, W. (2000). Healthy perfectionism in the gifted. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 11 (4), 173-182.
Pruett, G. (2004). Intellectually gifted students' perceptions of personal goals and work habits. Gifted Child Today Magazine, 27 (4), 54-57.
Ramsey, D. C., & Ramsey, P. L. (2002). Reframing the perfectionist's catch-22 dilemma: a systems thinking approach. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 26 (2), 99-111.
Rice, K. G., Leever, B. A., Christopher, J., & Porter, J. D. (2006). Perfectionism, stress, and social (dis)connection: A short-term study of hopelessness, depression, and academic adjustment among honors students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53 (4), 524-534.
Schuler, P. A. (2000). Perfectionism and Gifted Adolescents. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 11 (4), 183-204.
Stoltz, K., & Ashby, J. S. (2007). Perfectionism and lifestyle: Personality differences among adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists, and nonperfectionists. 63 (4), 414-423.