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 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 “When Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Giftedness Go To College”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Perfectionism: Who's Susceptible To Perfectionism?

    […] Prober of rainforestmind.com shares about Ellen: “Because her early schooling was not intellectually challenging, Ellen came […]

  2. What My Twice-Exceptional Client Taught Me | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] had written about her on my blog. This one on anxiety and perfectionism. And I quoted her in this one. I saw it all as the typical challenges gifted young people face. And […]

  3. The Many Faces Of Giftedness — Beyond Sheldon And Sherlock | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] Suzanne, college junior, perfectionist and extrovert. Suzanne was bullied in elementary school because she was outspoken, an enthusiastic student, and a fast learner. The years of bullying and her inborn capacity to think of many options, choices, variables, and catastrophes combined to generate disabling anxiety. Her intensity, complex thinking, and extroversion left her frustrated and lonely. Conscientious about completing assignments with at least 120% effort, she got bogged down in her need for quality and accuracy. In therapy, understanding that the source of much of her self-criticism came from years of rejection from peers and misunderstanding of her own rainforest mind, Suzanne began to feel more self-compassion. She was determined to learn tools to calm her anxiety, ease her depressed moods, and find a way to make a difference in the world.  […]

  4. A Short Guide to the Complicated Life of Gifted Adolescents or Young Adults | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] When Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Giftedness Go To College […]

  5. Gifted Children and Adults — Why Are They So Misunderstood? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] your craving for new ideas and experiences. Your obsession with philosophical questions. Your disabling perfectionism. Your horrible loneliness. Your highest standards. Your multiple career paths. Your beautiful […]

  6. The Dark Night of the Soul — How Psychotherapy Can Help You Through | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] for awareness and insight into their own patterns. Rainforest-minded children who tend toward perfectionism will benefit from parents who openly admit errors and make amends. Kids will learn that no one is […]

  7. blondesgotproblems.com Avatar

    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!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I hear you. Keep reading my blog posts and that might give you some insight into why you put that pressure on yourself. There can be many reasons.

  8. Genealogy Jen Avatar
    Genealogy Jen

    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!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You’re welcome, Jen. Good to see you here!

  9. Félix Avatar

    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.

  10. Bostonian Avatar

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

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      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 http://www.sengifted.org 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.

  11. Heather Boorman Avatar
    Heather Boorman

    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”!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks, Heather. Good to hear from you. And I should mention to folks that Insight Timer is free!

  12. Iowan42 Avatar

    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.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Somehow I doubt that their parents “are pretty useless.” But I hear you. Perfectionism and anxiety are quite complex and not easy to unravel.

      1. Iowan42 Avatar

        I don’t think I am useless, but giving advice to them is sometimes easier said than done. I’ve already referred your site to the mindfulness trainer.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          I think giving advice to kids is a tricky thing for many parents. Passing on a link to my blog could be one way to pass on the info! Thanks, Iowan42.

  13. shellypruittjohnson Avatar

    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!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Glad you found me, Shelly. You’ll find that my book goes into greater depth on these topics. It includes many case studies of clients that I’ve worked with over the years.

    2. Genealogy Jen Avatar
      Genealogy Jen

      Paula’s book also has wonderful resources at the end of each chapter to explore more on the topics she covers. I found them extremely helpful as well.

  14. shellypruittjohnson Avatar

    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.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Shelly. Please pass it on to your students!

  15. helenjnoble Avatar

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

  16. helenjnoble Avatar

    Reblogged this on helenjnoble.

  17. Heather Avatar

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

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Maybe it’s simple, but not easy. Thanks, Heather!

  18. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    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.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks, Gail. I appreciated reading your take on this topic, too.

  19. organizedte Avatar

    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.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I hope you can use some of Ellen’s strategies and that they will help with you and your little ones. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Kate Avatar

    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.

    1. Kristen Shields Avatar
      Kristen Shields

      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.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Thanks, Kristen. Finding balance can take time. Maybe instead of striving for perfection, we can strive for balance and wholeness.

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      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)

  21. skpicard Avatar

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

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, I’m so happy you’ll be sharing this with your students! I hope it’s helpful.

%d bloggers like this: