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How Is the Perfectionist Personality Formed?
Perfectionism and the Gifted Child
Do you know a prodigy? Do you know someone who was considered to be the most brilliant student in your class/school? Someone who excelled at all sports; required little or no effort to be the star of the football, basketball, and soccer teams. Someone who played almost all musical instruments, won all academic contests, such as Spelling Bee, chess, writing, debating, Science and Math contests. Someone who all the girls dreamt of dating? That person was valedictorian and graduated top of the class. All the teachers idolized him. They told you to be more like him. He could do no wrong. He was well known in the community as the smart kid, excelling at everything he did. He sang on the school and church choirs; leading the choir as the main vocalist while playing the piano, the drums and the bass guitar choir ( not at the same time). He was a leader and made sure everyone understood who was in charge. He was self assured and some of your friends called him arrogant. Everyone catered to him; telling him and others how great he was. Even your parents kept asking why you can't be like him.
Fast forward thirty years and you meet him again. He's in his mid forties and your best friend told you that he is out of work for the fifth time in a year; he is still single and is living in his parents' basement.
You are asking yourself, what happened to this person? You thought that perhaps he would be the CEO of a major cooperation or even the leader of a country. You thought that he would be married with the perfect wife because he was so popular in high school. You thought that he would be leading an affluent lifestyle, garnering respect from everyone and amassing tremendous wealth.
Then one day as you are returning home from work you ran into him at the nearby grocery. He looks very well dressed in a designer suit and carries an expensive briefcase. He looks very well dressed and appears successful. You decide that since you hadn't seen him since you both left high school, that you'd say hello to him, even though you were rushing home to make dinner. After the initial greetings and preliminary exchanges to catch up, after many years of not seeing each other, he starts to criticize your lifestyle. He tells you why you shouldn't be working for your employee. He looks at your three and five year old children sleeping in the back seat and comments.
"No child of mine will go to daycare. His mother will have to stay at home and take care of him. It is not fair to the children. Look how tired they look. Your husband doesn't make enough money for you to stay home with them?"
While you try not to reveal your shock and disgust, you gradually start to understand some of the reasons for his underachievement. You feel disappointed with yourself for deciding to speak to this person, but you do not want to drive off and leave him in your dust. It would not be polite. So you continue to listen to him while he devalues your lifestyle. You listen as he reopens the wounds of your guilt about leaving your children all day in the care of others; you listen as he pours vinegar on the wounds of your guilt. Then in order to take the focus off your life and your guilt, you ask him,
"So what are you doing these days?"
He begins to berate you with why the system does not work for him or why the "system" is out to get him. That he is out of a job because his 'stupid' manager felt threatened by him and got rid of him. He whines how he was more qualified than the manager who knows nothing about programming.
"So you are a programmer?" you ask, as you think of a way to excuse yourself.
"Yes I am a programmer, but that idiot manager wanted to send me to a course and I refused. I know everything about programming. I taught myself everything. What are they going to teach me? I don't want to waste my time." he says with contempt.
"So you have developed processes and systems using your programming background?" you ask thinking that perhaps he's making a livelihood from his knowledge of technologies.
"No. I know my stuff and I help people do all kinds of stuff. I don't need to develop anything. There are lots of processes out there already. If I am not writing the best software, I'm not about to do some mediocre program." he says looking pleased with himself.
"Even Bill Gates had to start at the bottom and worked himself upward." you remind him.
"Bill Gates is a fraud. He doesn't know about programming. He's a college drop out." he says with disdain.
"Well, he's one of the richest college drop-out that the world has seen." you retort with irritation in your voice.
"Money is the root of all evil." He replies. "People sell their souls and their children for money." he says looking at the back seat of your car.
That was your cue to leave. You have had it with this person's insult and will take no more.
"It was nice seeing you. I have to go the kids are tired. Take care of yourself." You tell him and drive away quickly. You feel disappointment and pity for the man he has become.
If you think that you know this person, you probably do. He was the gifted child in your fifth grade. As a child, he was always praised by his parents, teachers, his peers and everyone with whom he interacted. He never understood how to deal with failure. Debra Troxclair,Dept of Teacher Education at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammand, Louisiana points to the book, Growing Up Gifted, by Barbara Clark who argues that while still young and moving through the three developmental stages, that many perfectionists experienced situations that led them to feel inadequate and unsuccessful despite their abilities. Therefore, they developed self-images that allowed for nothing less than perfection. In order to feel worthiness, whatever they produced needed to be beyond criticism. When they encountered criticism, they tend to become defensive or even give up.
Whitmore (1980) reported that perfectionist tendencies make some gifted students vulnerable for underachievement because they do not submit work unless it is perfect. As adults, perfectionists usually appear to be very competent and confident individuals. They are often envied by others because they seem to "have it all together." Perfectionists can have trouble making decisions. They are so worried about making the wrong one that they fail to reach any conclusion. Along with indecision, perfectionists are sometimes plagued by great difficulty in taking risks, particularly if their personal reputations are on the line. Since they never had to deal with failure during their early development, they have not learned how to handle the slightest of setback. They may become isolated as no-one is able to meet their high standard and expectations. It is argued that they may have had parents who were very critical of them as children.
Parents of gifted children must use praise and encouragement appropriately to foster high achievers and not perfectionists. Parents strive to build healthy self esteem in their children, but need to be aware that praises and encouragement must be balanced; too much praise can be just as negative as no praise at all. Debra Troxclair suggests that parents should teach their child that it’s okay to make mistakes, especially when they are learning something new. She also suggest to teach your child by using their mistakes as opportunities for lessons to improve their abilities rather than regret. Debra also suggest that parents model healthy behaviours and talk about perfectionism with your children.
The perfectionist personality can be formed during the early stages of development. Gifted children are more likely to become perfectionists because of the reactions of parents, teachers and peers to their achievements. Children can link their self worth to the recognition that they receive for their talents and abilities. If left unchecked or nurtured, these children can grow up to be underachievers as they have not learned how to handle challenges, failures or criticism. They may also shy away from taking risks.