Academic journal article Journal of Secondary Gifted Education

Perfectionism: Its Manifestations and Classroom-Based Interventions

Academic journal article Journal of Secondary Gifted Education

Perfectionism: Its Manifestations and Classroom-Based Interventions

Article excerpt


Perfectionism, the compulsive striving for unrealistic and unattainable goals, is not limited to gifted individuals. However, research shows that gifted children and adults are at least as susceptible to perfectionistic tendencies as the population at large. Due to their heightened sensitivity, awareness, and abilities, gifted children require affective counseling in order to learn coping skills to help them break the cycle of disabling perfectionism. Teachers of the gifted may use various techniques with which to address these affective needs. Bibliotherapy, group therapeutic discussion, and art activities are all methods through which the negative manifestations of perfectionism--eating disorders, depression, underachievement, substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and suicide may be addressed.


In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian, visited the United States and observed that Americans had a strong belief in the perfectibility of man (Adderholt Elliot, 1987). Today, a vast majority of Americans still hold this belief as an ideal reinforced by competition in sports, academia, business, industry, the arts, religion, and media--society in general. Striving for excellence is a normal, innate aspect of human development (Rice, Ashby, & Preusser, 1996). Problems arise when the pursuit of excellence transforms into stalking perfection. When unattainable goals are set and the individual imposes unrealistic standards of superiority on his or her process of achieving such goals, then perfectionism becomes unhealthy (Rice, Ashby, & Preusser, 1996).

Aspects of Perfectionism

According to Burns (1980), people who exhibit an unhealthy form of perfectionism are those whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, people who strain compulsively toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment. Hamachek (1978) delineated two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists are those who derive pleasure from striving for excellence, yet recognize and accept their individual limitations (Hill, McIntire, & Bacharach, 1997). Neurotic perfectionists, however, possess unrealistic expectations and are never satisfied with their performance (Hill, McIntire, & Bacharach, 1997). Piirto (1994) labeled these types enabling perfectionism and disabling perfectionism. The enabled perfectionist is flexible in his or her application of perfectionistic standards and feels free to be more or less perfectionistic depending upon the situation (Rice, Ashby, & Preusser, 1996). Regardless of the achievement or the precision of the task rendered, disabling perfectionism leaves the individual with feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction, of never being good enough (Rice, Ashby, & Preusser, 1996). Researchers have shown that the psychological need of disabled perfectionists to live up to unrealistic expectations, whether self-imposed or imposed by others, may reveal itself through specific maladaptive behaviors: eating disorders (Axtell & Newton, 1993; Basco, 1999; Lask & Bryant-Waugh, 1992), depression (Hewitt & Dyck, 1986; LaPointe & Crandell, 1980), underachievement (Alvino, 1982; Brophy & Rohrkemper, 1989; Whitmore, 1980), substance abuse (Berglas & Jones, 1978), obsessive-compulsive personality disorders (Rasmussen & Eisen, 1992), pyschosomatic disorders (Forman, Tosi, & Rudy, 1987), and suicide (Callahan, 1993; Parker & Mills, 1996).

Perfectionism and the Gifted

Perfectionism knows no intellectual boundaries. According to Webb (1995), 15-20% of gifted students may experience the negative aspects of perfectionistic tendencies in their lifetimes. A study by Orange (1997), however, suggests that the percentage of gifted students exhibiting negative perfectionistic tendencies may be as high as 89%. This higher incidence rate was echoed in Schuler's (1999) study of perfectionistic gifted adolescents, where 87. …

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