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Perfectionism: Gifted adults set high standards

Gifted adults often set high standards that they expect themselves and those around them to reach. These standards are referred to as “perfectionism” by psychologists, and can cause problems in relationships both at home and at work, as well as for the gifted adults themselves.

I have seen these high standards at play for some of my clients. (Details in stories in this blog post have been changed to protect privacy.) For example, one individual I worked with was asked by his boss to execute a task, which might have been the equivalent of “tuning-up the Chrysler.” In tackling the project, this individual recognized he was able to “build a Maserati,” rather than simply tuning-up the Chrysler, so he set about building a Maserati.

A problem arose when this individual became frustrated because all his hard work and the quality of his end results were not recognized. It came as a surprise to the him that when his boss had asked him to tune-up the Chrysler, all the boss had really wanted was to have the Chrysler tuned-up, and not to have a Maserati delivered to his door.

Psychologists can help their clients who are gifted adults, and perfectionists, to realize they do not need to put the same high degree of effort into every project. Instead, psychologists can help these clients to realize they can pick and choose which projects to give their full attention to, and which projects they can elect to “cut corners” on because those projects don’t warrant more attention.

Learning to differentiate between which projects are worthy of a high degree of effort and which are not can help gifted adults move work across their desks in a timely way with a lower expenditure of energy. At the same time, learning to be more efficient in this way can allow gifted adults to focus more of their energy on projects they care about, both at work and outside of work.

Another set of problems can arise when a gifted adult is asked to work on projects with others. This may be because the gifted adult’s colleagues may not be interested in working, or may not be able to work, at the pace the gifted adult sets, or to meet the standards the gifted adult requires. These issues can lead to interpersonal problems over the longer-term, which can reflect badly on the gifted adult’s performance.

Read more about Adult giftedness and job satisfaction and Problems gifted adults encounter in the workplace.

Gifted adults frequently do not realize that they are different from their work colleagues in substantial ways. This is often the root of the problem. In other words, gifted adults are often not aware they are more intellectually capable than many of their co-workers. When they do realize they are more capable, however, it does not mean that gifted adults should stop stretching themselves. Rather, it means they can benefit from learning when to work to their full potential and when to relax their standards. When they work alone, or with other gifted individuals like themselves, they are capable of producing wonderful results. Witness the accomplishments of Steve Jobs, for example.

Many gifted adults share that they need constant challenge in their professional lives to thrive. A highly educated woman once told me, for example, that she needed to change jobs because she had learned everything that her boss had to teach her. She said that, from here on out, all she was going to be able to do under her boss’ tutelage was “more of the same.”

This realization came as a disappointment to her because she had enjoyed the working relationship she had with her boss. But once she realized she wouldn’t be sufficiently stimulated intellectually anymore, she wasn’t able to remain in her job. Reaching the end of her tenure with her boss came as somewhat of a surprise, because her boss had been able to make her “reach” in her job only five years earlier, when he had brought her on-board in an exciting new job opportunity.

Yet another type of problem can arise when gifted adults feel the need to continuously prove themselves to others. This need is frequently created when gifted adults were abused or neglected as children, where they internalized they were “not good enough.” In these cases, being a high achiever at school may have allowed them to survive the trauma of childhood by allowing them to build self-esteem through academic accomplishment and thus escape their situation.

Being high achievers can backfire in adulthood for these individuals, however, because the need to constantly prove oneself can become an unquenchable thirst.

Occasionally, I will meet a client who is unable to do less than exemplary work, and who feels compelled to deliver either a high quality end product or nothing at all. This need to turn in only stellar work can be debilitating because it can result in failure in university programs and careers. In these situations, gifted adults may need to learn that their perfectionism does not always pay off. Instead, they may need to learn when it is appropriate to complete projects to a “good enough” degree only, and to then turn the project in in whatever state it is in, rather than continuing to perform in an “all or nothing” manner.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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