A Gifted Kid’s Conundrum — Part Two — Anxiety and Perfectionism

photo courtesy of Thought Catalog, Unsplash

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.

Anxiety. Perfectionism. Expectations. Pressure.

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.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. 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 is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

38 responses to “A Gifted Kid’s Conundrum — Part Two — Anxiety and Perfectionism”

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  6. Toren Hynes Avatar
    Toren Hynes

    “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.”

    No idea how you read my mind growing up, but that’s totally what I was like. See, I was told over and over again how intelligent I was, and that my intelligence would be vital to my success as an adult. Trouble is, it led to a LOT of pressure growing up. It meant that if I just got one question wrong in a test (esp. mathematics… I have extremely poor short term memory), I’d end up thinking “I’m stupid & worthless” and that lead to panic, which led to extreme anger a second later (this state would end within ten minutes or so). My parents thought they were meltdowns, but looking back, I think they were actually more akin to anxiety attacks and that anger was just my way of expressing fear and despair.

    I don’t exactly blame myself for them, because seriously, how would a 10-12 year old boy know how to handle such powerful negative feelings? Especially since boys/men really aren’t taught how to deal with this at a young age.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, Toren. Good to not blame yourself. How could you know? And, also, there are the additional pressures on boys to not be emotional. Thanks for sharing. Others will benefit from your description.

  7. Thinking Moon Avatar
    Thinking Moon

    Also. The cycle can be broken. There is always hope. Xxx

  8. Mark V Avatar
    Mark V

    When I was young, I was pretty good at humaning. I was good at the human educations and the human arts, and I was very good at the human games. I enthusiastically tried my best at all the other humaning activities expected of young humans. Still, the humans eventually found out I wasn’t one of them, and they punished me for it.

    See, what they do is they keep moving the goalposts of how they define “human”. And you, someone desperate to continue proving your “human-ness” and being flexible and resourceful so that you always meet the challenges of the changes, don’t bat an eye as you double down on your efforts to keep up with the new demands of proving your humanness, never realizing that all the real humans had long since failed the increasingly difficult “human tests”.

    In your intensely enthusiastic non-human enthusiasm to being human, you unknowingly out yourself as being a non-human. And so they got you. For shame.

    Despite Official Human Policy (O.H.M.) that dictates “All humans should strive to do and be their best for the betterment of all other humans”. the small print actually says “Just kidding. If you try to do more than other humans, or if you even try to THINK different than other humans, we will find out and we will make things miserable for you. Because we would rather blow ourselves up in that specifically human way we have than to ever let some non-humans show us how to avoid blowing ourselves up. So suck it, non-humans.”

    1. hksounds Avatar

      I can’t see limiting the range of what it is to be ‘human’ in that way. Both blowing it all up and trying to stop that from happening are equally human. But, unfortunately, being passive when the driver of your bus is heading over the cliff seems to be an entrenched feature of far too many humans.
      I realize that yours is not meant to be taken literally but thinking that makes it easier to consider any one/group as sub/super human lead down a very dark path.

      1. Mark V Avatar
        Mark V

        But many humans DO have a limited range of what they consider “acceptable humaning”, and that it is considered normal humaning to try to impose those limitations on others, or to even de-Humanize them if they cannot human well, even at their own peril.

        I merely pose a simple question: just because a belief or behavior is widespread, does that make it “normal”?

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I hear you, Mark. It can be hard to be a human in this world.

      1. Mark V Avatar
        Mark V

        I have been subjected to a lot of de-humanizing BS lately. I have no other way to describe it other than from the point of view of someone who is not human.

  9. Michelle Parent Avatar
    Michelle Parent

    I was always a terrible perfectionist when it came to my art. I had so many beautiful pieces in my head, but afraid to put them down on paper as I knew they would not be what I saw in my mind. Thankfully, I have finally learned to let the perfectionism go enough that I can now work on a project and not hate what the outcome is if it doesn’t match the vision in my mind. Growing up, my dad probably didn’t help with much with his constant, “it is good, but I know you can do better. ” comment. Never felt anything was good enough even when I did finally put it out there in the world.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It can be so hard to deal with that type of perfectionism, Michelle. I don’t think many parents realize how much impact their comments have, particularly the ones they repeat over and over. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Elizabeth Faux Avatar
    Elizabeth Faux

    Thank you, Paula, for this (and all of your posts). I relate to all of these quotes in so many ways. I especially relate to that second quote:
    “They kept saying that I was so smart so I felt that if I didn’t get high grades, I’d disappoint them.”
    I, as a student, have felt this way many times. I’ve been raised being told I was gifted, but now that I am in High School (I’m a senior this year) the work is harder and I am not quite so far ahead now. (I’ve even gotten an F or two. sssshhhhh! lol) When I get low or even average grades, I tend to feel disappointed with myself and worried that people will think of me as a fraud if they find out that I’m not “the smart kid” like they thought. Thankfully, now (in part because of your blog) I am learning to accept my flaws and know that even if I don’t do everything perfectly, that I am still, in lieu of a better word, gifted. I appreciate what you do and that, thanks to this community of rainforest minds we have here, I feel more understood.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for letting me know, Elizabeth. I’m always so happy to hear when my writing helps “the smart kid” find more self-understanding and acceptance!

  11. Pegi Ficken Avatar
    Pegi Ficken

    I wish that you had been writing when I was 16–or 5, for that matter! As hksounds believes, I WAS surrounded by people like me but with more experience–until I started school. I was told by the school that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t just assume it. My mother was called in and chastised for “teaching” me to read. She had done it all wrong and I would never be a reader. (Funny thing about that.) In first grade I was a selfish show-off because I always answered the questions and didn’t give others a chance. In my 6-year-old mind, I thought, “Why did you ask a question if you didn’t want an answer?”
    I don’t think that things have changed all that much. Thirty years later, when my son was 3, I was called into my son’t pre-K class and chastised for “forcing” him, because he was a fluent reader. “The Hurried Child” was recommended. Except Elkind didn’t apply. No flash cards. No “teaching.” No pressure. What did they expect me to do? Get him a frontal lobotomy?
    Thank God for the internet. Parents have so much more support than I had.

    1. Stef Avatar

      Ah, Pegi–it was truly harder before the internet to find each other. Or information. The magnetism of “likeness” brought some of us together, but I often think of how many were (like most of those in my generation) utterly missed and almost entirely alone. The underlying fear of “doing it wrong” does not easily go away. So glad there are ways for those like Paula (thanks, Paula!) to reach out and help now! I remember that when we first gathered PG kids together for a “learning festival,” my son and I both had some real sadness that such a thing had not been available to us. It was a big piece (along with getting to know that batch of pg kids) of why I wrote Welcome to the Ark.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        I loved your book, Welcome to the Ark, Stef. Read it years ago and still remember it. I recommend it highly to anyone here!

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sadly, as you describe, the problems can start when a child enters school. I would have you rethink “selfish show-off” however. That may be how it looked to others. But I imagine that you were just a super enthusiastic learner. You were 6! School can be so frustrating for gifted kids when there are so many kids in classrooms so the pacing is much slower than they need. Thanks for sharing, Pegi.

      1. Pegi Ficken Avatar
        Pegi Ficken

        My teacher TOLD me that I was a selfish show-off and that I needed to not answer questions so that other children could “have a chance.” I loved the idea of school but hated the reality.

  12. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    I grew up being expected to know things before anyone had taught me, I’m not sure why, because there were plenty of things I really struggled with. It took me a while to learn how to learn, and how to feel safe with not knowing things and making mistakes. Sooner or later, everyone runs out of raw talent and needs to graft to keep going, If we don’t teach kids that it’s ok to have to struggle and that they can’t magically know how to do everything, we set them up to fail or suffer or both.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      The “why” could still be that compared to most kids, you did know quite a lot without being taught, even though you experienced struggle. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nimue.

      1. Nimue Brown Avatar
        Nimue Brown

        It was a largely praise-free environment, so I never got much sense of being good at anything.

  13. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Paula, Lots of great suggestions and resources, and helpful reassurance about the impact of anxiety, and the importance of compassion and forgiveness.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Gail.

  14. hksounds Avatar

    Hi Paula,

    This quote is fascinating to me: “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?”

    To think that everybody was like him suggests that he was around people who were, otherwise, he would have learned really quickly, as I did, that nobody else was remotely like he was. And that makes him very lucky because then he wouldn’t have had to fight for his own vision of the world that was in conflict with the trivial view of his family and the others around him, nor would he have learned to feel contempt for everyone around him who hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, especially when he so patiently explained it id precise detail. Ben is a success story.

    And, when he has pressure, he has you and others like you who are attuned to the problems gifted, some gifted, children have and that is also great. I’m glad there are resources available there weren’t there for me, and still aren’t. But even among the gifted, some are still outliers and pretty much on their own.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, many are still outliers and on their own, hksounds. That’s why I write. With Ben, he definitely felt like something was wrong with him but he didn’t realize it was because of a difference in intelligence. So that’s what I mean by the quote. He assumed that others had similar levels of intelligence and he just didn’t fit in because of some flaws that he couldn’t identify. And yes, I was able to help him, when he was 16 to see what was really going on. Make sense?

      1. Jac Avatar

        hksounds, I read that quote very differently than it seems you did. I read it as the thoughts running through Ben’s mind, but not as the truth of who he was with. As Paula shows in her response here, many kids with gifted minds think there is something wrong with them without realizing the profound thoughts they have are not shared. As a rainforest-minded child/teen myself, I was constantly assuming others shared my depth of observation and need for perfection, and I was bewildered every time I got a strange stare or response to what I said or did. If someone had been able to explain to me that my brain was wired differently, it may have spared me years of emotional stress and I may have liked myself better.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Thanks, Jac. That explains it a bit more clearly than I did. And, yes, that’s what I meant. Certainly, the topic of giftedness is so complex, that’s it’s easy to misinterpret something. I’m grateful for this comment forum where we can discuss and clarify.

        2. hksounds Avatar

          Hi Jac,

          I appreciate your wanting to clarify and I need it. Thanks, but I really need more or I can just blow it off as seems to be the most comfortable outcome for others. It is very difficult for me to know how to ask for further clarification because I have found that far too many people consider having their statements questioned to be an attack, I am going to trust that you will understand that I am trly mystified and wish to understand.

          You say, “As a rainforest-minded child/teen myself, I was constantly assuming others shared my depth of observation and need for perfection, and I was bewildered every time I got a strange stare or response to what I said or did.”

          My questions is, given the constant, and counter, response to your assumptions, how did you continue keeping then? IOW, I am simply at a loss to understand the conclusions you held for so long with zero supporting evidence. How does that work?


          1. Paula Prober Avatar
            Paula Prober

            I know you’re sincerely asking this , Joy, and hope Jac and others respond. I think in Ben’s case, he didn’t run into problems until he entered school. And, in school, because he wasn’t a high achiever, he got the message that he wasn’t smart. And he did feel different from others but didn’t interpret that to mean smarter. In general, many RFMs that I see, feel very different, like outliers, but they feel like their intelligence is in the normal range or maybe above average. But not gifted. I think you’ve mentioned, Joy, that you are 2e (twice exceptional). Is that right? It could be the complications of 2e-ness also have added to your early conclusions and struggles.

          2. Jackie Avatar

            I am not offended or taken aback in any way by your asking for clarification. I am analytical and always happy to look at things from another angle.

            It wasn’t so much that I was keeping the same assumptions, but rather that I kept trying to interact, unsuccessfully. Maybe what I should have said in my comment above was that I constantly assumed others would appreciate my depth of observation and need for perfection, and was bewildered every time it didn’t impress my peers. Maybe Ben didn’t know he was smart–I knew I loved puzzles (including academics) but didn’t understand that others didn’t.

            I knew I was smart–academically–and I felt superior to my fellow students at school because most of them struggled to pass tests without studying or cheating. But I didn’t realize the magnitude of my missing social cues, which was more obvious to others than to me.

            My self-questions in my youth, parallel to Ben’s questions, would have been along these lines: Doesn’t everyone want their notes edited for spelling and grammar before passing them to their high school friends when the teacher wasn’t looking? Doesn’t everyone wonder how many blades of grass are in their backyard? Why don’t they just visualize what they read in chapter 6 so they can ace the quiz? Can’t they give us pens to use instead of pencils so I don’t have to hear everyone else scratching their pencils writing their essays for the test?

            I did get lots of negative feedback, but it didn’t help me figure out what to do to get along, nor that I needed help. It just left me feeling that there was something wrong with me–being good at school didn’t help me succeed socially. My way of coping was to keep a lot of thoughts to myself, but I didn’t want to. I knew I was different, but I just felt like I was unlikable.

            I was lucky–I found my tribe when I went away to college. But I still struggle with social cues sometimes, even now, decades later.

            I didn’t really want my comment to be so much about me. But there it is to help clarify what i said earlier.

            1. Paula Prober Avatar
              Paula Prober

              Thanks, Jackie. Your example here will be helpful to many readers. Thanks for taking the time.

              1. Jackie Avatar

                That’s weird that my name came up differently–Jac and Jackie are both me. That was probably confusing…sorry about that…

            2. hksounds Avatar

              Hi Jackie,

              I think your reply was most informative and helpful. I can see some similarities in experiences, but interesting how different our responses can be to similar stimulus. “I did get lots of negative feedback, but it didn’t help me figure out what to do to get along, nor that I needed help. It just left me feeling that there was something wrong with me”
              I, instead, decided it was pretty obvious there was something wrong with them. I don’t say this to suggest, in any way, that it was a better response but it was how I reacted. That, unfortunately, does nothing to bring one closer to others or to understanding. I do believe that one can look at the state of the world, the injustice and destruction and also conclude that there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world others have constructed and are living in.

              How do you/I/one/we bridge that gap?

              Thanks for your reply.

              1. Paula Prober Avatar
                Paula Prober

                You ask an important question, Joy. I suspect that most of us are grappling with how to live in a world where there’s so much “injustice and destruction.”

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