By Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC
I’ve been thinking about varieties of perfectionism since having a discussion with a gifted trauma survivor.
It became clear that some of their perfectionism was an expression of giftedness and some was related to family of origin issues. Same outcome, different sources.
Does the source of perfectionism matter?
I think it does. By understanding the differences we can clarify what can be embraced and managed, and what can be healed. Different sources, different strategies.
Much has been written about perfectionism and its relationship with giftedness. The gifted person is driven to express their interests and pursuits.
Perfectionism is about passion, energy, and focus. The person may feel exhausted, tortured and frustrated, but the process can be interesting and rewarding, too.
If their creative endeavor falls short, the gifted person pushes onward to get as close as they can to what they envision.
Perfectionism is connected to developmental potential and entelechy.
It is the determination to be the best one can be.
This type of perfectionism is rooted internally in giftedness.
It is intrinsic. It moves from the “inside out”.
This type of perfectionism is a response to outside circumstances.
It is a consequence of abandonment and neglect.
Its source is external.
This perfectionism is an adaptation. It moves from the “outside in”.
Every child needs parents who are capable and healthy, especially psychologically.
A child’s normal development is undermined if the parent is impaired, especially if the impairment is chronic, and minimized or denied.
The child will try hard to be who their parent wants them to be and fill in the gaps however they can.
The child hopes that their efforts will restore the parent to health. This is true of all children, gifted or not.
A gifted child may be particularly vulnerable to being exploited by an impaired parent, especially if their gifts lend themselves to caretaking, or to helping the parent realize the parent’s own unfulfilled dreams.
The caretaking can take many forms. The child may become amusing when the parent is sad, responsible when the parent is incapable, accomplished when the parent is inadequate.
But in doing so, the child’s development is compromised as their own needs become subsumed under the needs of the parent.
These sometimes Herculean childhood efforts have profound and predictable effects on children, one of which is perfectionism.
If the child does not feel intrinsically loveable, they may decide unconsciously that love must be earned or won.
They might think to themselves that if they are perfect, maybe their parent’s problems will be eased and love will be their reward.
Perfectionism appears to be a solution to their difficulties.
The child is unaware that this is unreasonable.
This notion is driven by their difficult circumstances; it is extrinsic.
It comes from the “outside in”, not from the “inside out”.
This type of perfectionism can be linked to procrastination.
Procrastination is an indicator that completing the task perfectly is not likely to produce the unconsciously hoped for result.
And shaming oneself into trying harder only increases the impasse.
Surprisingly, procrastination can be the voice of reason counteracting the unreasonable belief that perfection is the solution.
Procrastination is a natural consequence.
Perfectionism that is associated with parental impairment can be healed.
By focusing on claiming one’s true self, this “outside in” type of perfectionism loosens its grip, and as a result, the tendency to procrastinate resolves.
Thankfully, giftedness is associated with resilience.
For the gifted person who grew up caretaking an impaired parent, both types of perfectionism are likely present.
Being able to discern the difference can help one be compassionate towards oneself.
Resilience and determination can help the gifted person heal and harness the power of their positive drive to enjoy life more fully.
The gifted person can use their resilience to live more from the “inside out”.
As an expression of giftedness:
Enhances the sense of self
An expression of developmental potential
Can increase a sense of agency
About fulfilling own expectations
Not related to procrastination
Needs to be managed to better serve self
As a response to an impaired parent:
Undermines the sense of self
Inhibits developmental potential
Is not associated with agency
About fulfilling others’ expectations
Often related to procrastination
Needs to be healed
Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC is a counselor in Seattle, Washington. She writes:
“My clinical interests include the relationship between giftedness, addiction and trauma. For the gifted, I help them awaken to their giftedness and associated character traits, and integrate this awareness with their work, creativity, and relationships with self and others.” – See more on page: Counselors – Therapists – Coaches.