The fear of failure. With your self-worth wrapped up in your own performance, anxiety increases as the high standards you have created are crippled by the procrastination that has taken precedence. What’s in the fridge? Do I have the right stationery? What about this font size? Are the margins in my document set? I wonder what that noise is outside? As the minutes tick by, you start writing one sentence multiple times. Write, delete, write, delete, and so the process continues. How can we implement strategies to counteract the ramifications of perfectionist tendencies with our gifted and highly able girls?
Perfectionism has been theorised to be a construct that has multiple dimensions. These dimensions can have positive or negative effects on our girls. Whilst the healthy type of perfectionism (adaptive) focuses on high achievement, high standards and perseverance, the unhealthy type (maladaptive) finds difficulty in doing things; gifted girls are unable to be fully satisfied because in their eyes what they do is never good enough. This leads to frustration, often spiralling into catastrophising, increasing their anxiety and diminishing their self-concept.
How can we work with our girls, integrating strategies to encourage them to be brave, and not perfect? How can we create a culture where bravery, perseverance and resilience is fostered through a focus on learning and growing? How can we teach our girls to match their high standards with their strengths and limitations? How can we teach and encourage them to modify their standards depending on each situation they encounter? To develop a positive sense of self, independent of their performance? To balance their thinking and complete their tasks in set times?
We need to start by encouraging students who demonstrate tendencies of perfectionism to be aware of their own levels of anxiety and when they may be putting too much pressure on themselves. Common language and messages must be communicated by the teacher, the parents and within the school community about the unrealistic expectations of perfection to create a school culture promoting personal growth and a growth mindset.
As their teacher or parent, model failure and how you utilise strategies to work through this. Set realistic short-term goals for your task and discuss the high standards you have, based on the time and resources you have available to you. Model positive self-talk, stopping to take a deep breath and talk about how your body might be feeling anxious. Demonstrate breathing techniques to show students how to counteract these feelings as they occur and the effect of mindfulness on the way you approach your task.
Ensure your self-talk is realistic, matches your goals and caters to the age of your students. Provide opportunities for students to fail in an environment they feel safe in, with friends and teachers they feel supported by. Opportunities to take small risks, where success is not guaranteed, redefining the meaning of success with an emphasis on learning and growth. Focus on effort, celebrate personal successes and drive success through your student’s intrinsic motivation.
We must remember that not all perfectionism is unhealthy, with adaptive perfectionism leading to the pursuit of excellence by setting achievable and reasonably high personal goals and standards. Utilising the resources at hand and doing their best in the allocated time, healthy perfectionism sees girls moving on with an open mind to take risks and undertake new ventures.
Further information on perfectionism in gifted students can be found at:
Sylvia Rimm on Perfectionism in the Gifted – An Interview by SENG’s Editor-in-Chief, Michael Shaughnessy
National Association for Gifted Children – Perfectionism