You may have read about Ben. He’s the gifted teen who said “I have to know it before I learn it.” He learned to read early. No one taught him. Learning was easy. He knew what they were teaching in school before they taught it. He came to believe that all learning happened this way. He didn’t feel particularly smart, though. Doesn’t everyone remember everything that they read? Isn’t everyone fascinated by fractals? Doesn’t everyone want to be an anthropologist-poet-engineer-actor-scuba diver when they grow up?
It’s assumed that these kids will be fine because they’re so smart.
Not Ben. Not the gifted kids I know.
To the max.
Does this sound like you or your kids?
“I should be good at everything. I feel lost, empty, and helpless when I don’t know something. When I was very little, I was frustrated when adults didn’t respect me. I didn’t have the words to express my intense feelings and I felt powerless and angry. My body couldn’t accomplish what my mind could imagine. I can still feel that helplessness. Probably why I need so much control now.”
“They kept saying that I was so smart so I felt that if I didn’t get high grades, I’d disappoint them. Or worse. They’d see that I wasn’t so smart. And that would be devastating. Who was I if I was average? Or mediocre? I couldn’t even bake a cake without worrying that I’d make a mistake.”
“I feel everything so intensely. That includes frustration. Sadness. Empathy. All of it. No wonder I’m anxious.”
“…I am so afraid of failure. I tend to work on skills privately to protect my self-image. If it’s not ready for prime time, no one sees…”
“Up to a certain point, most things came easily. When I didn’t automatically know what to do, I watched or mimicked a few times and then the information or process was stored for good. But if I didn’t think I’d be successful at something in a short period of time (or at all), I wouldn’t even try…”
“…when you can imagine the ideal creation in greater detail…(or when you can imagine so many more different VERSIONS of perfection) then it’s much harder, emotionally, when you inevitably fall short…The scary thing about actually working to achieve something is that there’s always the possibility that, even if you work hard, the product could be mediocre…”
“…I’m now in my forties and have multiple advanced degrees, but I still struggle with forgiving myself when learning doesn’t come easily. My daughter exhibits similar behaviors, and as I help her learn about how her brain functions, I’m finding the compassion to help myself…”
What, then, are some ways that you can help yourself and your kids?
• Understand that your perfectionism and anxiety might exist not because of something that you’ve done wrong but because of the nature of growing up gifted. The complications begin at an early age. You have a right to take the time to focus on your self-understanding and growth.
• Make a list of self-soothing techniques that work for you. Try the different apps that exist such as Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace. It often helps to create a daily meditation practice or exercise plan. Some people have found morning pages from The Artist’s Way to be useful. Notice if food sensitivities or hormones are a factor. Get help from a smart, sensitive practitioner, such as a bodyworker, acupuncturist, naturopath, or therapist.
• Make a list of calming reminders. Here are some items on one teen client’s list: I’m a fallible human. I make mistakes, like everyone. I’m learning. I’m experimenting. Making a mistake does not make me a bad person. Am I catastrophizing? Do I need to be this upset? My body tends to be anxious, but I’m actually safe. It’s going to be OK. I’m older now and I have more control over my experiences. Now that I’m older, it makes sense that there will be many things that I won’t know.
• The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Bourne is a good resource if you need many specific techniques.
• Procrastination by Burka and Yuen is a good resource for perfectionism and procrastination.
• If you’re a parent, share these ideas with your children. Listen to them as they share their frustrations and fears. Careful listening and reflection often works better than advice giving or rescuing. If they’re very young, give them the specific words for their emotions.
• You have great compassion for others. Let yourself receive some of that sweetness, too. Forgive yourself for not being perfect.
And remember, above all, your kids and you will learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. And your memoir will be much more fascinating because of your failures, your foibles, and even your fears. Where would David Sedaris be today without failures, foibles, and fears?
To my bloggEEs: You may notice that some of these quotes come from your comments. Thank you so much. What else do you have to say about anxiety and perfectionism? Clearly, sharing your experiences helps us all! And thank you to the client who inspired this post and gave me permission to use some of her words.
Thank you to those of you who’ve read my book. If you could write an imperfect review on Amazon, I’d be so grateful. And if you don’t have my book yet, well, ahem, what are you waitin’ for? And, if you go to my About page, you’ll see I’ve added a podcast and an interview about parenting gifted kids. Sending you all much love.