Perfectionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it can be incredibly harmful to our emotional and psychological health if left unchecked. The desire to control everything at all times, in a world that often is outside our control, can lead to anxiety, stress, even depression. So it’s no wonder that some people, who were gifted students at school and constantly praised for their achievements, are now severely disappointed with the lives they lead. Perfectionism is all they know. And it hasn’t served everyone well. I would know, being a former ‘smart kid’ and recovering perfectionist myself.
Reddit users, all gifted students themselves, opened up about how their lives have turned out. Quite a few shared some of the issues they faced, such as never learning to properly study or how to put in consistent hard work. Meanwhile, others noted some of the upsides, such as the ability to come up with amazing ideas on the fly and acing tests… which, of course, have their own drawbacks, too.
Scroll down to read the tales of these former gifted students and how growing up as the ‘smart kid’ affected their adult lives. Keep in mind that perfectionist parents tend to raise perfectionist kids. They can then eventually grow up and become perfectionist parents themselves who go on to put undue pressure on their munchkins to perform well at school. And the whole cycle starts anew, with stress and pressure left and right.
Bored Panda reached out to Lenore Skenazy from New York for a chat about perfectionism in the modern world. Lenore is the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and the founder of the Free-Range Kids movement. As she put it, control is a “figment of our imagination” and the desire to be ‘perfect’ can backfire dramatically. Scroll down for the full interview.
Since everyone is telling you you're a genius and you're special and you're capable of amazing things when you grow up... you spend the first twenty years of your life expecting success to fall into your lap. When you finally realize it won't, you're still stuck with your terrible work ethic.
I certainly lack the organizational skills that a less intelligent person was forced to develop, because previously, I just kept it all in my head. Now, of course, there are far too many things going on, and they last so much longer, that it's virtually impossible to keep everything in my head. But I lack the discipline and skill necessary for, say, a schedule book. Intelligence is not wisdom, and it is not common sense, and it is not discernment. It is, however, unfortunately, very highly regarded as a standalone product when, as a standalone product, it does not really add value.
Lack of discipline, bad work ethic, started becoming more and more lazy and even falling behind everyone else. Even now, studying at the university, I fail pretty much all of my exams the first time I take them, cause I never actually learnt how to study in the first place.
Childhood independence expert and author Lenore explained to Bored Panda that we imagine that we control everything when in reality, seeking control makes us more anxious. “The thing about being ‘perfect’ is that we never know all the workings of the universe. So to assume we can control everything and make it perfect is foolish,” she told Bored Panda.
Lenore quoted a part of her book, Free-Range Kids, that dealt with the topic. “[Control] certainly isn’t required for good child-rearing. And to the extent that we do manage to solve all our children’s problems—or keep those problems from ever even popping up— we are doing them a disservice. Not a fatal one that will stunt our children forever. (That would still be control, right? The ability to control exactly what our kids become.) But still, we are steering them away from the real source of confidence and independence, which comes from navigating the world and its surprises. Especially the unpleasant ones.”
Lenore then explained to Bored Panda exactly what she means by this. “What I mean is: striving to be ‘perfect’ can actually backfire,” she said.
Even worse was being told how "mature" I was for my age; get told enough times and you start to believe it yourself. Turns out I wasn't mature, just different.
I was mature because I did what I was supposed to in class, in reality I just didn't really dare to disobey;
I was mature because I didn't chatter with others during class, wasn't because I was mature enough to know better than others, but because I didn't have any friends to talk with.
Yet I was still always told I was "mature," which leads you into believing you are walking down the correct path -- that you have the correct mindset and there's no need to change it.
When people start doing better than you and you become more average, you start becoming a bit disconnected with who you are as a person. For all your life you've identified as the 'smart one', now you have no idea
I entered a culture were everyone, teachers, parents, relatives etc valued me for my smarts and so I used that as my yardstick to value other people for a long time.
Nowadays I'm more interested in who shows compassion, loyalty, dedication, generosity, humor, etc Had to work really hard to break the filters.
The desire to be ‘perfect’ can cause a lot of damage, whether you’re a parent or not. But it’s especially in raising our kids that perfectionism can do more harm than good. For everyone involved. The main issue? Kids need to learn to take care of problems themselves. Independence is vital growing up.
“Making sure your child NEVER has to be uncomfortable or scared or lonely or frustrated—trying to ‘concierge’ their life—means kids arrive at adulthood without much experience in rising to the occasion,” Lenore warned. “In a way, they [the kids] arrive undercooked, unready for life—and that’s not what any of us want for our kids.”
When you don't have to work at anything (intellectually), you're completely unprepared for those things that do require work, like essays, partner projects, etc. So you end up missing out on a lot of study skills, which all have a direct corollary to "adult" skills.
Now that I'm out of school, I realize how much of my self worth I wrongly placed in my grades/GPA.
I skipped a grade... So, no one saw me as the smart kid but instead as the diminutive thirteen year old ninth grader in Pre Calculus. You learn to keep your mouth shut.
It wasn't that great.
According to Lenore, being exposed to a variety of experiences can help toughen us up. That way, we can deal with whatever life throws at us as veterans. “The pain of not getting invited to a birthday party, or failing a class, or not making the basketball team is no fun. But when your college girlfriend dumps you, at least you know you’ve been sad before and lived through it,” the expert gave an example.
“We do our kids a disservice when we make their lives ‘too’ perfect and don’t let them build up some resilience. Sure, we should love and support them. Sure, we want to steer them from true, serious danger. But always intervening in day-to-day frustrations is like going to the gym with our kids and lifting the barbells FOR them. Yes, they have an easier workout. No, they don’t leave stronger.”
As such, modern parents are living with “a new and incredibly heavy burden” that they supposedly ‘should’ be and even can be ‘perfect.’ Of course, this causes a lot of stress and results in kids who are well taken care of, bright, skilled, but don’t have the resilience to deal with the realities of grown-up life.
Hard. I skipped four years in school - it took me years to come to terms with the fact that I'm allowed to do what makes me happy, not what people expect because "you have so much potential."
When I applied to music school my mother's friends openly criticised her for letting me do it, because they couldn't understand why I wasn't moving into a 'brainy' career path like medicine or law. Still get a lot of family members asking why I'm not doing XYZ job that they think I'd be perfect for.
TLDR: Just because you're smart enough to be a rocket scientist, that doesn't mean you have to be one.
The correcting of other people is what I've found bothers people the most. I can't stand listening to others spout information that is incorrect, especially to smaller children that will repeat the endless cycle of stupid, so I say something. Or, when playing trivial pursuit, you know all the answers, but don't know how you know them and get the trivial or critical thought based games banned in your friend circle because, "she's just going to win anyway!"
I used to be so proud of my intellectual abilities and saw myself above many of my peers. Now I loathe myself for that and am realizing there is so much more to a person than being "smart" or "not smart". I'm realizing I was a little jerk inside and even if I tried to be nice on the outside, I still probably hurt people.
I was the typical over-achiever until University, when I had a mental breakdown and developed depression and an anxiety disorder. Turns out, being intelligent doesn't help so much when the family history of mental illness hits you in early adulthood.
Have to say the best part of growing up gifted was the "well what'd you miss" I'd get from parents when I brought home anything less than a 100.
Lonely, because few share your interests.
Lonely, because displaying (showing off?) an intellectual gift brings as much resentment as it does praise (brains are particularly susceptible to resentment because, unlike say soccer or dancing, no one says "hey, your great at that! Thinking just is not my thing lol!". everyone fancies themself to be intelligent, even though everyone can't be).
Lonely, because most people would rather not be corrected, no matter how interesting you personally find the actual accurate information. This might not be clear to you for the first few decades (Actually, did you know that carrots don't substantially aid eyesight? oh, and actually the Pennsylvania Dutch are German. Dutch is an American corruption of Deutsch and....hey, where ya going??)
Lonely, because stories/puzzles/convos that move slow enough to engage most people are interminable to you, and those that move fast enough for you are unintelligible for everyone else.
Lonely because what makes you different can't be seen, so others who're like you might walk right by, and not seek you out. There's no uniform, like a sports jersey our punk rock hair to indicate that you're in the 1%.
Lonely, because logic is your favorite tool, but it is rarely used and often misapplied. Relationships, religion, politics, social situations----it is often OFFENSIVE to apply logic to them. but...you're a logic guy.
Intellectually, I was waaay ahead of my peer group, but emotionally and socially I wasn't. When I was moved forward a grade, I ended up being the youngest kid in my classes. All of them. So when my classmates were all getting their driver's licenses, I wasn't. When they were all allowed to see the naughty movies, I wasn't. Their parents set curfews that were usually later than mine, because I was younger. And puberty, well, puberty was a very difficult time
Imposter syndrome out the wazoo. Everyone is going to find out that I don't know what I'm doing/am not working as hard as I should be/am not as gifted as they say I am.
I wish I had figured that out while getting my aero degrees. One of my advisors even told me it would be OK for me to leave to go to music school. Now I'm 40, I left engineering years ago and I'm about to release my first album. But hey, I'm a rocket scientist too. So there's that.
I used to be the smart kid. Now I'm the knows-a-couple-of-things guy.
I had a horrific work ethic because I learned in elementary school that because I was smarter than the other kids, I didn't have to work as hard. Generally they would give us "GIFTED" work, and whatever time we had remaining once the work was complete was ours to do with as we liked. The result was learning that the other slobs would toil away all day, and by virtue of being smart, we could just d**k around with Lego or whatever. It wasn't until I got older that I learned to "apply" myself, and went the opposite direction. Now I work, arguably, too much.
You are segregated (physically and partially by choice) from average people your age, and you tend to only interact with other smart people who are in the same place you are. You might not learn the necessary social skills, especially since many of your peers don't have them either.
My self esteem, self worth, and happiness are being sucked up by this void feeling of mediocrity creeping into my life. I feel cheated, or like a cheater. I was given a head start early in life but now I'm sort of back to average. I feel like I was wrongly chosen as "gifted" and that I am a complete waste of resources.
I am a severe perfectionist. So much so that I sabotage myself because I happen to make a tiny mistake. The only thing I seem to be good at now is work, because I HAVE to have everything perfect.
The hard thing about the real world is just that life doesn't work to where you can do nothing and then ace the test. You have to do every single little step along the way. As menial, and useless as those steps may seem, the real world will always take the guy that averages a C on everything and maybe squeaks out a B- on the test over the guy that says f**k the stupid s**t, and still gets 100% on the final test. (Metaphorically speaking)
One thing I missed going from an excellent student in high school to an average one in college was the attention I'd get from teachers as the 'smart one.' I'd always feel they were generally looking out for me more. Of course, it didn't help that college class sizes were gigantic, but that anonymous feeling got to me. A bit embarrassing to admit.
My entire life I was top of the class, and I told myself it was okay I wasn't thin or pretty because I was smart. Then I went to a relatively prestigious university and suddenly I was surrounded by people who were just as smart or smarter than me, but also hot. It ruined me, and destroyed my self esteem.
I also developed this pathological perfectionism which caused/causes me so much anxiety I'm unable to work and then feeds into itself.
We're going to spend a week's worth of classes learning one concept. Gifted Student, you're going to get this in five minutes and sit in the back corner reading for the rest of the week while I get more and more angry and yell at you for not paying attention. I'm going to sent you to in school suspension for one day this week, meaning you'll miss one of those classes. You'll be back in time for the test and still get the highest grade in the class, which will make me hate you even more.
Skipped a grade, which I probably could have used to become more emotionally mature. Cried a lot in math class.
I have always felt an immense pressure from my family (parents and my parents close friends who are like my aunts and uncles) to work hard and not squander the gift I was born with. I will be receiving my Ph.D in biomedical science and translational medicine next Friday. My current work focuses on identifying a novel protein complex that is involved in Triglyceride metabolism. Hopefully I lived up to their expectations and can leave something behind in this world to benefit mankind....or a pharmaceutical company hires me and pays me a boatload of money.
Not going to lie, you grow up feeling kind of entitled to good test scores/grades, and when that doesn't actually happen you start re-evaluating your life. Then, when you take classes with other gifted kids, and see that you're part of the "average" section of that group, you reconsider every academic achievement you've received, haha.
I'm still a top student in my grade, still too lazy to do my homework (not as much as others though), but I stopped getting upset when my test scores didn't surpass those of my friends.
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