Your Rainforest Mind

Support for the Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive

When Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Giftedness Go To College


photo courtesy jeshoots, unsplash

Ellen was a fast talking, deep feeling, super insightful 20 year old. She’d been a high achiever throughout her public school years. The work was easy. She could listen to one teacher while she did her homework for another. She was conscientious and energetic. Curious and imaginative.

She was also anxious. Her active rainforest mind came up with so many worries and then worried about her worrying. She was also a perfectionist. She had an innate desire to create beauty, harmony, justice, and precision. What I call intrinsic (healthy) perfectionism. And she also experienced the extrinsic (unhealthy) variety of perfectionism. She questioned her worth as a human being if she didn’t perform at the top of the pack at all times.

Throughout public school, Ellen had managed her anxiety and perfectionism. She had loving parents who didn’t pressure her to achieve and she didn’t run into much that she couldn’t figure out quickly. But she put plenty of pressure on herself. Excelling in school was intricately linked to Ellen’s sense of self. She was not particularly athletic and often had trouble maintaining friendships. She would be frustrated when other kids didn’t respond well to her complicated play. She didn’t have the same interests as her peers.

Because her early schooling was not intellectually challenging, Ellen came to believe that all learning ought to come quickly and easily. She thought that she ought to “know it before I learn it.” She didn’t learn how to struggle with a concept or how to study for an exam. Ellen also didn’t learn how to manage her time. She never had to. Ellen wanted to be the best. Always get A’s. Be as thorough as possible in all things. And she was successful.

Until college.

Suddenly, Ellen was on her own. Not only dealing with coursework that was more difficult but also planning her schedule, choosing classes, and managing: study time/homework, new friends, dorm life, exercise, sleep, meals, fun activities, laundry, and all those other daily decisions that you can’t predict. Not to mention, she still wanted to excel in all of her classes. She said that she didn’t know how to do it any other way. If she didn’t give 100%, she felt lazy. Or, she thought, maybe she wasn’t so smart after all. Her identity would teeter on the edge. Anxiety overload. Perfectionism paralysis.

What did I suggest to Ellen?

What insights will help the anxious college-attending perfectionists in your life?

~ An extremely active, thinking, analytical, imaginative mind mixed with multiple sensitivities and extraordinary empathy will most assuredly create anxiety. How could it not?

~ Intrinsic perfectionism comes naturally to rainforest minds. High standards and expectations along with an appreciation for beauty, harmony, justice, and precision are inborn. You need to appreciate this about yourself and then find ways to prioritize assignments so that you can manage your workload. What is truly important? Does your chemistry lab report have to be beautiful? Do you need to rewrite your lit paper yet again because you didn’t research every single related subtopic that you thought of? Will your professors still appreciate you if you get an A-?

~ Will giving less than 100% on occasion make you a lazy slacker or is it a realistic way to make time to rest and to feed your soul, which will ultimately allow you to be more productive and kinder to others and yourself?

~ There are some good apps for reducing anxiety: Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace. There are many other suggestions for calming your worries in this post.

~ Get to know what it means to have a rainforest mind. Read more posts from this blog!

~ Chapter 3 in my book goes into depth about the types of perfectionism and provides guidance and resources. Read it!

~ It’s possible that your anxiety might be affected by particular foods or hormone imbalances. Meet with a doctor or naturopath to explore this. Acupuncture, exercise, or neurofeedback can help. If your anxiety is frequently intense and overwhelming, medication might be an option. It can provide enough temporary relief so that you can put some relaxation techniques in place and feel the results.

After a while, Ellen began to speak more confidently about her rainforest mind. She had a greater understanding of her anxiety and perfectionism and was developing ways to manage them.

She explained: “I’m listening more to the calming voice within me. The self-critical voice isn’t quite as loud. I’m learning that I need to be more patient with myself…I can’t do everything. Things take time. Be gentle with myself.”

Be gentle with yourself. Listen to the calming voice within. And be sure to feed your fast talking, deep feeling, super insightful soul.


Thank you to the clients and readers who inspired this post.

To my bloggEEs: Does this sound familiar? How does your perfectionism show up? What have you done to calm your anxiety? Did this happen to you or your kids in college? By the way, not all perfectionists are high achievers. But that’s the topic for a future post. For more posts on perfectionism from parents of gifted kids and from professionals, click on the link.

Author: Paula Prober

I'm a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in counseling gifted adults and consulting with parents of gifted children. The label "gifted" is often controversial and confusing. I use the metaphor of the rainforest to describe this population. Like the rainforest, these individuals are quite complex, highly sensitive, intense, multi-layered, and misunderstood. They're also curious, idealistic, highly intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, and they love learning. I've been an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I've written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, and Advanced Development Journal. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, was released in June 2016 by GHF Press and is available on Amazon or at your independent bookstore. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists, was released in June 2019.

37 thoughts on “When Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Giftedness Go To College

  1. Great way to tackle a complex topic Paula. Thank-you so much for this. I will be sharing it with students!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not a perfectionist in everything (just look at my house, lol!), but in the things that I feel it is important to give my energy to, “beauty, harmony, justice and precision” pretty much nails it, along with the accompanying anxiety and frustration that comes when I can’t get others to appreciate those things in what *I* think “should” be important. Sigh. Thanks for the resources that could help in dealing with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took me ages to realize my house was a disaster because I gave up, because I couldn’t get it perfect, so why bother? (Throw in a year or two of major health issues to toss everything into further disarray, and forget it … sigh.) So, you are NOT alone. I grew up in a perfectionist house (the cleaning part) and I didn’t want to be that overwhelmed … and I never found my balance. Still looking.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for writing, Kate. Yes, one doesn’t have to be a perfectionist in all things! (although sometimes perfectionists can be messy because they can’t achieve perfection with their homes/organization so they give up and go in the opposite direction)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am “Ellen” every last word. Failed out of college first year. Came home learned a little bit about how to study and do school while living at home and then went back to university to finish.
    Then adulthood came and the issues were still there. Somewhat managed for many years but never far from the parent net of rescue.
    Now married with children and he picks up majority of the household to keep us running and we have at least 1 if not 2 little rainforest minds on our hands.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Paula, Great article and tips for the importance of self-calming strategies. I agree that many gifted people hold high standards for themselves, although what you describe as “extrinsic” perfectionism really gets in their way. Learning to appreciate and accept who they are is always the first step.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “Be Gentle with yourself” – seems so simple, doesn’t it!?! Thanks for the words of wisdom!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Timely blog! Insightful and self-affirming, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you so much for this, Friend. I am a philosophy professor at a local college, and I see many “Ellens” in my class. To be honest, I was also an Ellen growing up. You give really helpful advice here.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Also, I want to learn more about this “Rainforest Mind” that is the title of your blog and you mention here. This is interesting. I will check out your blog more and your book!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This describes me and both of my daughters who are in most ways quite different. One daughter is a fiery feminist grant writer who still needs to take a step or twelve back. The second is a clinical psychologist who at least recognized these traits, though she felt not good enough from Kindergarten. The second one has a part-time mindfulness practice. I still can’t think of a thing we could have done to show them what you posit. They have to learn if for themselves. At least there are people around who will work with them even if their parents are pretty useless. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. As always, Paula, SO good! And thanks for the suggestion of Insight Timer. That’s one I haven’t heard of yet . . . it is downloading as I “speak”!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m more concerned with how giftedness, ADHD, and executive function deficits go to college, personally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s certainly a big topic, Bostonian. I don’t have much experience with executive function deficits and my ADHD experience is with adults out of college. There are resources online on this. Go to and look at their articles. Also, sites about twice exceptionality or 2e. There are Facebook groups for parents of 2e kids. So those are some places to head.


  12. That’s how I’ve felt for several years now, but it’s been invasive since the beginning of my master’s degree. I work every day on my perfectionism to make my life a little easier. Thank you Paula for sharing this story with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I can relate to Ellen as well. I am hoping as I learn to embrace the messy parts of life, that I can set an example for my sons of letting go of that pesky perfectionism. Thanks Paula!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I feel such a pressure to be perfect! But I don’t really know how to change it. It doesn’t come from my parents or anything. Just me!

    Liked by 1 person

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