Perfectionism... It’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

James Bishop

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngOne of the most illuminating presentations that I attended on the subject of giftedness was given by Dr. Linda Silverman of Colorado’s Gifted Development Center. The talk on perfectionism was the keynote of a regional symposium on giftedness in North Texas. In her presentation, Dr. Silverman took the position that perfectionism, when properly managed, can be a healthy attribute for gifted people. Her position was unsettling to a number of educators in the audience, many of whom held the growing viewpoint that perfectionism is inherently unhealthy.

Perfectionism.jpgIn one particularly memorable exchange, an audience member took exception to the idea that perfection could be a healthy pursuit or that anything could be perfect. He challenged her with a question, asking if she felt her book, Counseling the Gifted and Talented, achieved perfection. She looked the audience member straight in the eye, and without a moment’s hesitation and with absolute conviction in her voice, replied, “Yes. My book was perfect.” She exemplified, on a personal level, the epitome of healthy perfectionism.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the striving for achievement or production that is without flaw or error. As a disorder, perfectionism is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) as a type of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, characterized by “rigid insistence on everything being flawless, perfect, without errors or faults, including one's own and others' performance; sacrificing of timeliness to ensure correctness in every detail; believing that there is only one right way to do things; difficulty changing ideas and/or viewpoint; preoccupation with details, organization, and order.” It is important to note, however, for perfectionism to qualify as a disorder, it must be pathological and involve significant impairments in personal and interpersonal functioning. A person can be perfectionistic, can seek perfection, while remaining psychologically healthy.

Where Perfectionism is Important

There are times in our lives and in our society when perfection is absolutely necessary. When you are undergoing a critical surgical procedure, you need and expect the surgeon to be perfect. It was Dr. Ben Carson’s personal standards of perfection that made him a celebrated and trailblazing pediatric neurosurgeon. Aerospace engineering is another example of a field that requires nothing short of perfection; a missed calculation or a defective part can lead to catastrophe. Wernher von Braun, the father of rocket technology in the United States, demanded perfection of himself and his fellow engineers. Perfectionism also moves technology forward for the enjoyment and betterment of society, as in the case of Steve Jobs, whose perfectionistic tendencies gave him a reputation as a taskmaster but led to a number of technological advancements during his tenure as the CEO of Apple, the fruits of which we enjoy today.

What Healthy Perfectionism Looks Like

Healthy perfectionists have high standards for themselves but recognize that they may not always achieve perfection and are accepting of this reality. They are capable of drawing a psychologically healthy line in the sand where they are willing to accept less than perfection. They are respectful of the inability of others to achieve perfection, even as they may drive them to attempt it. They are not burdened by fear of the criticism and judgment of others when their performance falls short of perfect. Their goal is to achieve perfection, and it is an orientation toward excellence rather than an accomplishment that must be achieved at all costs.

It’s Okay to Aspire to Perfection

Don’t be fooled by the current cultural-political zeitgeist against perfectionism. As the late philosopher and historian Will Durant once wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Dr. Durant spent five decades writing an eleven-volume story of civilization and every sentence was an attempt at perfection. For the most part, he succeeded. Yet when he didn’t, he was accepting of his errors and took it in good humor.

I’m sure that this article itself falls short of perfection, but I guarantee you that I aimed for it.

James Bishop is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas who specializes in working with gifted youth and adults. He is the current chair-elect of the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.