Portraits of Gifted: Perfectionist’s Face

You don’t get much mail when you’re young; so the day I received an orange letter, neatly addressed just to me, makes every other disappointing trip to the mailbox worth it.

It was from my older sister. I was struggling in high school, as usual, and she was excelling at college, as usual. I opened it slowly. She had never written me before and I wanted to appreciate the moment.

The letters were perfectly sized and each word was in a perfectly straight line. She has the neatest handwriting I’ve ever seen. I always thought it was as if a typewriter was stuck in her fingertips. I admired the paper and her handwriting for a while before reading it.

Once I allowed myself to read, the letter opened my eyes a little wider and my understanding a little deeper, not just about her, not just about perfectionism, but about everything. In it she told me truths and opened her heart to me in ways I didn’t know she ever would. She expressed how difficult school was for her, how hard she had to work, and the depression which overcomes a person who can’t ever get it right (enough). She shared her mechanisms for maintaining.

Maintaining, I thought? Surely she didn’t see her amazing achievement and success as mere maintaining; but she did. Perfectionists maintain and even if they maintain at the highest level, even if maintaining is achieving high success from a gifted platform, it sometimes comes at an equally high emotional toll.

That letter changed something in me as I read it and still helps me today as I reflect upon it. It remains the one and only time my sister really opened up and shared her flaws with me; flaws which I honestly would have never thought existed without that letter. I see her now, small against her soul, seeking a place where she can sit down and enjoy the scenery for a while, without worry, and without working. It will always be the window I needed then and the window I desperately need now to understand perfectionism in all of its glory and difficulties.

I have a touch of perfectionism and with many learning disabilities growing up it took an interesting form. It did not allow me to try or to push or to jump; instead, it kept me up in the wee hours to finish something I’d start again the next day, to edit that which can be edited (which is everything), and to ponder my next best move while simultaneously trying to determine if I can make that move with complete certainty of success. Perfectionism runs in a strong vein in my family.

My daughter is very much like my sister. We joke about it often as she creates the rules for the game, adheres to all of them, and expects that from others. I watch as she excels at school, does everything she’s told, pushes no boundaries, and does everything… perfectly. But my daughter’s not perfect; she’s just a perfectionist.

Today I am focusing on my sister. I always focus on my sister. Why wouldn’t I? After all, I always saw her as perfect in every way. She is much older than me and because of this distance I held her up and far away. I idolized her. If there was a class- she aced it. If there was a challenge- she not only took it, she conquered it. When life threw her curves- she swung and hit it out of the park. She works hard, mothers hard, sisters hard, and lives hard. Her clothes and hair are impeccable, her smile beautiful, and her ability to help everyone and put their needs first is admirable. She’s perfect.

Yet, thanks to her letter, I know my sister from a completely different perspective; a more real and down-to-earth perspective.

My sister is the most kind and sensitive person I know. The things which she conquers leave marks in her soul for her to question and relive constantly. She internalizes every fear and does not give herself time or permission to run with abandon and impulsivity. She thinks of others and her place amongst them so often that she feels lost sometimes and alone in a crowd. She admires others’ gifts so deeply that she can’t ever seem to focus on her own with any real appreciation.

Today’s Portrait of Gifted is Perfectionism. It is my sister’s face, my daughter’s face, and it is the face of so many gifted and twice-exceptional children. It manifests in a million different ways but casts the same glow on their world. It is the Face of Gifted which tries the hardest and seems to give up before everyone else. It is the mediocre, the safe, and the middle ground. It is the flying high before knowing wings get tired. It is the positive when it’s helping and the negative when it’s not.

I only received one letter from my sister. One perfect letter which said enough, and said it so well, she never had to write another one.

My sister is the Face of Gifted. She is the Face of Gifted Perfectionism. She is brilliant, funny, loving, intuitive, hard-working, and kind. Each of these comes with a counterbalance of insecurity, doubt, fear, and worry. Gifted Perfectionism is intense and goes far beyond textbook definitions. When gifted perfectionism starts to move, it goes beyond and above, through and in front of, below and around, constantly lacing and weaving threads of ideals and ideas around and around.

The result is a beautiful and perfect cocoon, one which is admired for its delicacy as much as its mysterious purpose, while simultaneously leaving the perfectionist safe, confined, and feeling incapable of breath. It is as exhausting as it is amazing.

I don’t admire my sister for the cocoon she created for the outside world, though it is as beautiful and perfect as it had to be. What I admire most is what she always has been and always will be on the inside. And I eagerly await another letter announcing she is ready to spread her wings and fly.

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